Vol. 32 Issue 3 Reviews

Dexter Morrill: Music for Stanford

Compact disc, 2006, Centaur Records CRC 2732; available from Centaur Records, Inc., 136 St. Joseph Street, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70802, USA; fax (+1) 225-336-9678; World Wide Web www.centaurrecords.com/.

Reviewed by Michael Boyd
Greenbelt, Maryland, USA

CD CoverDexter Morrill has been active in computer music for nearly 40 years. In the early 1970s, he established a mainframe computer music studio at Colgate University in collaboration with John Chowning and Stanford University, where he had previously studied composition. About this process, the composer writes, “[o]ur studio at Colgate was in many ways a satellite of the larger Stanford system, so I could go back and forth and work at ease” (all quotations from the composer are taken from the liner notes for the disc). Mr. Morrill’s music is significantly influenced by jazz. In the late 1950s, he studied trumpet with Dizzy Gillespie and arranging with William Russo, and more recently authored a book on Woody Herman for Greenwood Press. These two often-discrete musical interests, computer music and jazz, cross-fertilize in Mr. Morrill’s music; he has, for example, collaborated with prominent jazz artists such as Stan Getz and Winton Marsalis. As a researcher, he has focused on the analysis and synthesis of instrument tones. Commenting on this, the composer writes, “I became good friends with Jean-Claude Risset whose brilliant analysis work formed the basis of what I tried to do. My work in trumpet tone research and phrasing analysis were efforts to make some kind of contribution.”

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, Mr. Morrill’s computer music work has been conducted regularly at both Colgate University and Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). Music for Stanford, the subject of this review, documents his compositional activities at Stanford between 1973 and 1995, covering a significant portion of the composer’s career. The music found on this compact disc is aesthetically diverse and has been written for a variety of media ranging from tape alone to tenor saxophone with tape to soprano with radio baton, electronics, and tape.

Getz Variations (1984), the first composition on Music for Stanford, is a piece for tenor saxophone and tape that Mr. Morrill wrote for Stan Getz; this recording features the famous saxophonist in a live outdoor performance at Stanford. J. Bradford Robinson and Barry Kernfeld describe Getz at Grove Music Online as “one of the supremely melodious improvisers in modern jazz. His style was deeply rooted in the swing period. Drawing his light, vibrato-less tone and basic approach from Lester Young, he developed a highly personal manner which, in its elegance and easy virtuosity, stood apart from the aggressive bop style of the late 1940s and 50s.” Getz’s inimitable sound and style clearly served as Mr. Morrill’s aesthetic foundation for this composition.

Commenting on this collaboration, the composer writes, “My main concern in 1984 was how to have computer-generated sounds fit with a fabulous Jazz improviser (Stan told me early on that if it was all notated, I should get someone else to ‘read it’)… [I]n the Spring of 1984 I decided to have him make short recordings of improvised ideas.” Mr. Morrill also “recorded some ‘walking bass’ lines… and some simple brush and cymbal sounds.” He then “generated some accompaniment music at CCRMA, using John Chowning’s voice program, David Jaffe’s plucked string program, and several of Bill Schottstaedst’s programs. Finally, [he] drew small snippets of sounds from an old Woody Herman LP of Stan’s solo on Summer Sequence IV, which [he had] always felt was the greatest seven bar solo ever recorded. All of this accompaniment material was used in the final ‘tape,’ along with some of Stan’s own improvisations… edited and cut into small sections.”

The first movement of Getz Variations, “Echoes,” foregrounds the live saxophonist over a resonant, atmospheric background that is static overall but internally mobile and emulates the warm, resonant characteristics of Getz’s saxophone timbre. The second movement, “Quartet,” evokes the character of a jazz combo. In this movement, Getz performs alternately lyrical and virtuosic material, accompanied by bass, cymbal, and modified saxophone sounds. The accompaniment is initially sporadic and largely imitative of the jazz quartet medium, but increases in density and divergence from traditional jazz conventions as the movement progresses until the movement’s end, which sounds like a distorted reflection of a jazz quartet. “The Lady from Portola,” the third movement, features a more traditional form and exploits Getz’s lyrical playing along with synthesized guitar and vocal sounds. The final movement, “Windows,” begins with a variety of fragmentary material: short saxophone motives, oscillating rhythmic figures, and sweeping organ-like sounds. The short sax motives, forming both part of the tape and performed live by Getz, increase in density, creating a complex polyphony, until a computer-generated organ enters which accompanies Getz’s lyrical playing for the reminder of the composition. Commenting on Getz’s performance of this movement, the composer writes, “[t]o this day I cannot understand how he could improvise such fabulous counterpoint on the first try in concert.”

The next two compositions on the disc were produced in the mid-1990s and feature unique electroacoustic instruments/interfaces. Sea Songs (1995) is a set of four short songs written for soprano Maureen Chowning, radio baton, electronics, and tape on texts about the sea by Ezra Pound, Agha Shahid Ali, and Yvor Winters. Discussing this work, the composer writes, “Max’s Radio Baton is a fascinating controller… I decided to have Maureen Chowning wave the batons as she sang, changing the quality of her voice, which was picked up by a vocal microphone and sent to the Digitech processor. In addition, I made some accompaniment music with synthesizers, and pre-recorded this material so she would have some ‘stable’ music to perform with.” The accompanimental sounds are generally instrument-like, for example synthesized keyboard and mallet percussion sounds, though inharmonic electronic sounds tend to prevail in the second song. Commenting on the role of the singer as it relates to the live electronics, Mr. Morrill writes, “[t]he songs are all notated, but there is a real element of improvisation for the singer, who must shape her own vocal sounds as she sings. The piece is much more difficult to perform than it might appear, since many of the sound processor ‘effects’ produce a strange vocal pitch and may also degrade the clarity of diction, even though the melodies are conventional and quite tonal.”

Salzburg Variations (1994) was created for composer and cellist Chris Chafe, who performs this composition on a celletto, an electronic cello of his invention that interfaces with a computer. The composer writes that this piece “features [Chafe’s] electronic celletto, some prerecorded sounds as an accompaniment, and some EMu Morpheus sounds which were produced by MIDI controls from his celletto, using a pitch tracker.” This composition has a diverse sound world and a feeling of spontaneity, both arising from the fact that Chafe’s performance is completely improvised and that the Morpheus unit’s output was somewhat unpredictable. The result is a richly varied work that ranges from dense, noisy textures to sparser, lyrical moments.

The final two compositions found on Music for Stanford date from earlier decades.  Quartet (1985) is a three-movement composition for violin, cello, and two-channel tape, the latter of which takes the place of the second violinist and violist in a string quartet (during performance the loudspeakers are placed to physically occupy the spaces typically filled by these instruments). Commenting on this set-up, the composer writes, “[m]uch of the computer generated sound is kept to single voices—one for each speaker, and the idea was to compose a chamber work, not a large ‘sound piece,’ as is so often found in computer music.” This configuration indeed creates an interesting dynamic: a tension exists between the “real” string instruments and the computer-generated sound which is generally, though not always, “string-like” throughout the piece. In the first movement, “In Proportions,” the effect is subtle; this movement sounds as though it could be scored for a string quartet, though at times a slight timbral deviation is perceptible between the violin/cello and computer. “Solo,” the second movement, is comprised of entirely computer-generated sound based on a thirteen-part division of the octave. This timbrally-varied movement shifts freely between moments that evoke string instrument gestures and those that diverge significantly from that paradigm. The final movement, “Polytime,” returns to the aesthetic of the first movement where the four parts are generally characterized by string-like timbres, though this movement at times provides more striking timbral and gestural divergences that recall similar moments from the second movement. The disc ends with Chowning (1973), a brief, charming composition that is rhythmically active and features short, inharmonic sounds created with John Chowning’s frequency modulation algorithm.

Music for Stanford presents a striking overview of Dexter Morrill’s electroacoustic work from the past 35 years. Chowning demonstrates some of the composer’s earliest work in the electronic medium, while Sea Songs and Salzburg Variations represent his work with unique electronic instruments (interfaces). Getz Variations and Quartet present interesting perspectives on the traditional jazz and string quartet genres, at times nearly aligning with convention and at other moments distorting the expected soundscape significantly. Mr. Morrill’s music is engaging and this compact disc serves as a welcome introduction to his electroacoustic work.