Wadada Leo Smith’s String Quartets: The Right Road to Travel

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Wadada Leo Smith, Andrew McIntosh © 2022 Kat Nockels

“Well, if you consider that I began composing at the age of 12, I was actually late,” chuckled Wadada Leo Smith, responding to the suggestion that he had an early start composing string quartets while in his mid-20s, prior to his joining the AACM in 1967. Even though many of his AACM colleagues were then already composing works for unusually configured ensembles, Smith was the first to take on string quartets, inspired by the recording of Ornette Coleman’s “For Poets and Writers,” issued on Town Hall, 1962.

“I began my first string quartet in ‘63,” Smith recently recalled. “The impetus was the energy, the attitude of the Ornette Coleman piece – this is still important to me. I didn’t ask anybody if I could compose a string quartet. I didn’t ask anyone to teach me how to compose a string quartet. After I wrote my first piece, I considered myself a composer. Simple as that. Ornette Coleman didn’t ask anybody to teach him how to write a string quartet, either. Neither did he ask if he should or could. What he did was write from inspiration, his own initiative, and had that Town Hall concert to present that music. That showed me that’s the right road to travel. You don’t need guides and assistance if you have the courage to look at the whole expanse and decide which way you want to go. That’s what he did; that’s what I did. There are other artists that are similar, like Thelonious Monk.”

Smith continues to travel that road, exploring and expanding the centuries-old configuration. To date, Smith has composed 17 string quartets, the first dozen having been issued on the 7-CD collection, String Quartets Nos. 1-12 (Tum). Like Smith’s other works, his string quartets elude generalizations; each is distinct from the others, devoid of the stylistic signatures that often lead blindfolded listeners to correctly identify the composer. They comprise a bright, shimmering 55-year long thread running through Smith’s immense output, reflecting his singular vision and determination.

“I wrote the first movement of the first string quartet over and over for two and a half to three years,” Smith said. “I was trying to figure out how I wanted to write this string music and I learned how to write it by writing it. Even at that age – I was twenty something – inspiration was something I felt. It was something I felt even earlier, at the age of thirteen. I had clear moments when I understood something about music. The age of thirteen was a paramount year for me, in terms of realization and understanding of how it works. When you start working on something, and you get that inspiration and you start putting it on paper, there are a lot of other things that come into consideration for the mechanism of how you do it. But you find ways to do it that are unique to you, since nobody told you how to do it, nobody showed you, instructed you that this is right or that is wrong. I’m sure those two and a half to three years of writing and rewriting the same piece – in addition to the other music I was writing then – showed me what my limits were, both in terms of practicality and how to use inspiration, the whole gamut.”

The initial work on his first string quartet overlapped with Smith’s first European tour – in an Army band based in Orleans, France. Seizing the opportunity to score the annual Christmas concert, a collaboration with the community orchestra that became a formative experience. “That month, month and a half, working on that music, writing it and then hearing it, was like a graduation,” Smith explained. “I could actually hear the ranges I was using with strings, I found out where the resonant part of an instrument is – where it sounds best, where it carries best – and how winds, strings, and percussion mix together. That was the only way of verifying how I was writing string music, and trust it. I could play the piano and play the notes that related to what was in my score, but normally, I write for all instruments away from the instruments. I can check them; I do check them from time to time, if there is a knot I want to smooth out. I’ll figure that out on the piano or the trumpet, but normally, I write away from the instruments because I don’t want to limit my ability to craft what I’m trying to put together.”

Smith’s initial work on No. 1 coincided with his inception of Rhythm Units. In his introduction to Rhythm: a study in rhythms-units in creative music (Leo Smith Publishing; 1976), Smith characterized the Rhythm Unit concept as “one that accepts a single sound or rhythm, a series of rhythm-sound, or a grouping of more than one series of sound-rhythms as a complete piece of music and thus need not to be so-called developed further to be appreciated as a whole fresh realized work or piece, IMPROVISATION” (Smith’s caps). Rhythm Units were first document on “The Bell,” Smith’s contribution to Anthony Braxton’s Three Compositions of New Jazz, recorded in early 1968.

“I had worked with them for four years by that point,” Smith recollected. “I had a feeling about what they should be, but I had no image of what they should be. I also started looking at scores to see if anyone else had anything that would match what my feeling was. I looked through old book stores for scores, anything written about music composition. There was nothing directly connected to Rhythm Units, but I took four years to design what I thought Rhythm Units should be. I thought about tearing it up, throwing in the trash or burning it. I read once that Duke Ellington used to flush things down the toilet, but I wasn’t going to do that. So, I’m learning about string quartets while I was looking for Rhythm Units. I knew they were there. There are two full versions of the first string quartet that have never been played. The middle version is the most interesting one for me. It has all kinds of microtones in it – not quarter tones, but micro tones that are basically inflation of pitches. I was learning all of this at the same time. From No. 1 all the way through the string quartets there are Rhythm Units, and Ankhrasmation as well. Ankhrasmation started in No. 3 – “Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit” – and it’s mainly in the first violin part, as well as microtones, starting in the second movement.”

Smith had to wait until the early 1980s to hear his first two string quartets. He assembled a quartet from players in New Haven to perform not only his No. 2, but also string quartets by Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, and Talib Rasul Hakim (whose brother was Joe Chambers). After the first rehearsal, one of the composers confided to Smith that he made small changes to his work after hearing the clarity and power of Smith’s. More than a year later, Smith finally heard No. 1, performed by Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Recital Hall with those by Abrams, Braxton, and Jenkins. “Because I had not heard No. 1, I chose that to be played,” Smith said. “When I heard it, I was really amazed because I had tried to have it played two or three times before. It was first played in Iceland. A friend of mine had put together a string quartet just to play it, because I was trying to get it recorded. It wasn’t played publicly. In that rehearsal, it wasn’t played very well, but I could hear what it was. Now, Kronos was a very renowned quartet that had played together for years, and therefore their version of it was very beautiful. To my surprise, I then got an inquiry from the New York String Quartet about that piece, because it was reviewed in the Times, a very favorable review. I never heard back if they had played it.”

The lag between composing string quartets and hearing them persisted through Smith’s years at Bard College, where students’ core course obligations often denied them the time to develop his work. “I had one piece played while I was there by the Resonance Ensemble, which had six instruments, which I had expanded into a piece for a larger ensemble,” Smith pointed out. “It had Rhythm Units in it, all of the idiosyncratic qualities of my music. CalArts was different. [Smith taught at CalArts from 1993 to 2014] It was much easier to find students who were open to understanding what you were doing. I had that type of student at Bard College as well, but there was always some of sort of interference with another part of the department. Not at CalArts. Those early years was like a paradise. Creativity is still a central goal there, but it has moved more towards the conservatory model. As a teaching position and a creative environment, I think it is the apex in America. Even if you look at different conservatories around America, CalArts has that openness so students can cross boundaries, and nobody can tell them not to. You don’t have to necessarily sign up for a class to do it. You follow your own path that boosts your ability to transcend all the boundaries.”

RedKoral Quartet (Mona Tian, Shalini Vijayan, Ashley Walters, Andrew McIntosh) © 2022 Kat Nockels

It was during this period that Smith began adding instruments, including his trumpet, to his string quartets. In addition to the RedKoral Quartet – violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Tian, violist Andrew McIntosh, and cellist Ashley Walters; all but one first encountering Smith at CalArts – Smith is heard on Nos. 6 and 8; harpist Alison Bjorkedal on 4; pianist Anthony Davis and percussionist Lynn Vartan on 6; guitarist Stuart Fox on 7; and vocalist Thomas Buckner on 8. Set aside the question of whether or not these works are string quartets in the strict sense of the term with a paraphrase of Wallace Stevens: Anything is a string quartet if the composer says it is. The more salient issue is how twelve works composed over more than a half-century cohere into a compelling shape, one that keeps the ear moving to refreshing effect, the quality emblematic of Smith’s entire output. Unlike the music of stylistically moored composers, Smith’s has always unfolded, second by second, in unexpected ways, reinforcing the idea that creativity can lead anywhere.

Smith’s expansion of the standard string quartet format was also influenced by Ornette Coleman, whose Prime Design/Time Design featured a string quartet and Denardo Coleman on drums – Smith also cites “Forms and Sounds,” the wind quartet for which Coleman supplied trumpet interludes. (It is also the only Coleman work in this vein recorded for two discs: An Evening with Ornette Coleman and The Music of Ornette Coleman: Forms and Sounds.) “The other influence was Shostakovich,” Smith offered. “He has several string quartet pieces with piano in the mix. There is a history of this. Where I differ is expanding the palette for a much larger coloration. I use the guitar. A lot of people might think a guitar would be completely wiped out by the four strings, but the guitar has a presence that resonates very powerfully with the strings. There’s one with percussion, piano, and trumpet; there’s one with voice and trumpet; that’s my way of expanding it. To make this picture clearer, String Quartet No. 17 – I’m up to No. 17 now; I’ve laid out two movements already; it will be five or six movements long – is based around the US Capitol. It is for string quartet and flute quartet – bass flute, alto flute, C flute, and piccolo. Now that I have a sufficient number of these string quartets, one of my goals is to show the relationships between them. If you look at my Rosa Parks oratorio, there is a string quartet, a trio of voices, a trumpet quartet, a percussion quartet, and an electronics duo. It’s the mixture of other instruments that composed to represent fully independent entities sharing the same space.”

Independent entities sharing the same space is a good way to describe how influences congregate in an artist’s imagination. They are sometimes listed on LP covers and in CD booklets. In his notes for the box set, Smith listed the string quartets of several European composers he researched, including Shostakovich’s, followed by two lists of African Americans – blues musicians including B.B. King, and composers from Scott Joplin onward. At first glance, these are customary namechecks.

Notably, the first name in the queue was Béla Bartók, whose inclusion may seem reflexive, given the stature of his six string quartets, but merits a closer, if brief look. Both composers recognize the dynamism of vernacular traditions and experimentalism. Initially a field researcher – a preservationist – Bartók plainly drew on Magyar folk music in many of his works, including his first and last quartets. While Smith had early experiences playing in R&B bands, he has never made literal use of vernacular material. Their methods also contrast vividly, with Bartók occasionally using number and ratio systems to control components of his works, while Smith invented Rhythm Units and Ankhrasmation to give performers interpretative leeway.

Rhymes like the one produced by considering the string quartets of Bartók and Smith together abound in music history, bringing insight to the motivations and the means of composing and improvising undertaken by persons of different times and places. Such rhymes do not join otherwise disparate artists at the hip, to be mentioned in the same breath ever after. They are, in essence, noteworthy glints that can enhance listening to one or both. Undoubtedly, Bartók is not the only name in Smith’s lists of nearly two dozen composers (including King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker) that would provide the engaging comparisons and contrasts required of such a rhyme. The most important aspect of historical rhymes is not the connections they often strain to make between two composers or improvisers, but, conversely, the individuality they reveal of each.

Smith finds this rhyme to be problematic. “I think Bartók’s relationship to folk music is overblown,” he retorted. “I think the whole idea of folk music has political connotations of lowness and highness. I don’t see John Lee Hooker coming out of a folk tradition; I see him coming out of a composer/performer tradition. I make those distinctions because these things have been overbuilt throughout the history of our music. Let’s look at it this way: most of what Bartók did was anthropological studies around trying to preserve what he called folk music in Hungary. He wrote studies about it. But when I listen to his string music, I find that it is a whole other way of creating. One can always make a reference to a rhythm or a phrase, and even though they don’t not make a carbon copy of it, they make the point that it’s the same basic outline.

“The high voice of the first violin in No. 1 is closely related to the sound I heard from master guitar players in the South,” Smith further explained. “If you look at the European tradition, they didn’t play that high until modern times, after this guitar music was already out. My influence is that kind of range and the harmonic perception we hear in the strings is configurated in Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. I named them in the midst of the European composers to position my opinion of them as composers/performers. But the real relationship is in the range, the usage and harmonics of high pitches. That’s what I was trying to emphasize in writing that. Sometimes I use Billie Holiday [for whom the first movement of No. 12 is named] and the way she recomposes stock pieces of music to make them far greater than they were ordinarily. When I look at her work and the relationship to a Miles Davis or a Wadada Leo Smith, what we inherited from her was that dramatic quality she has, that she actually becomes the song she is singing, and therefore is a stage or cinematic production of that song. She dramatizes the song instead of just performing it. I think Miles Davis does that, and it comes out of Billie Holiday; he doesn’t say that, but I believe it does. She got it from Louis Armstrong, that whole presence.”

The dedicatee of the second movement of Smith’s String Quartet No. 11, Armstrong remains an archetypal composer/performer – to use Smith’s term – in that he took well known melodies and, by applying his own personal truth, transformed them. “That early New Orleans music shaped a lot of what was to come – Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, all of them,” Smith said. Further addressing the contextualization of the music of African American composers/performers as folk music, Smith referred to an interview cited in Ricky Riccardi's Armstrong biography What A Wonderful World and elsewhere, a 1956 exchange with Eddy Gilmore of the Hartford Courant. Asked if his music was folk music, Armstrong replied, “Folk music. Why, Daddy, I don't know no other kind of music but folk music – I never heard a hoss [horse] sing a song.” “That sense of humor was his way of answering that question,” Smith observed. “Was it in the affirmative, or was it not? It’s right in the middle, which is profoundly powerful.”

Armstrong’s response can be read as elusive, a resistance to being pinned down to a single answer. His famous remark that if one has to ask what jazz is they would never know can be considered in the same light. That is not the case with Smith; rather, his long-standing position being that creativity is irreducible to blanket statements, for which his string quartets provide ample evidence. There is no simple single answer, especially when it comes to an artist as singular as Wadada Leo Smith.


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