Proudly Disengaged

Presented in collaboration with The Attic.

Joe Morris / March 2020

This text is musician, writer and educator Joe Morris’ contribution to a series of essays, commissioned by REMAIIN (Radical European Music and its Intercultural Nature), a project that investigates non-European cultural influences on the experimental, avant-garde and innovative music of the present and the past. It is co-funded by the „Creative Europe” programme of the European Union.

Downbeat Magazine called guitarist/composer/improviser Joe Morris, “the preeminent free music guitarist of his generation.”  Will Montgomery, writing in WIRE magazine, called him, “one of the most profound improvisers at work in the U.S.” He was born in New Haven Connecticut in 1955. He began playing guitar at the age of 14 first playing rock music, progressing to blues, then to jazz, free jazz and free improvisation. He released his first record Wraparound (riti) in 1983. He has composed over 200 original pieces of music.Since 2000, he has been on the faculty in the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation Department at New England Conservatory. Morris is the author of the book, Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music (Riti Publishing 2012).

I questioned the importance of Western European Classical Music as a necessity as soon as I started thinking seriously about music in the early 1970’s. My instrument, the steel string guitar, be it the flat top acoustic, archtop acoustic or the electric has no connection to that discipline. It’s a new world instrument. Neither Bach, Mozart or Beethoven ever wrote a note for it, No royal sponsor commissioned a concerto for steel-string guitar. Of course it’s the same physical instrument with different strings as the one we call classical guitar but its history is totally different. The classical one evolved from ancient lutes, functioned as a folk instrument, and eventually did have concertos written for it. Once it became a platform for a composer to define their music its future was forever altered. Those compositions became the pedagogical imperative that determined the players every interaction with it. That point clarifies the difference between it and the steel-string instrument, which has no such pedagogy or identity. In other words there is an expected and accepted correct way to play guitar in the Western Classical Music world and there is no such thing in the world of the steel-string. 

The influence of European music certainly isn’t negative. As art, it is one of the greatest things ever done. But as a hierarchy it’s a problem. The days when art was centralized in Europe are long gone if they ever truly existed in any way other than imposed dominance supported by exclusive institutions. I proudly ignore that or any other oversight that suggests there is a correct way to play music. I base that on a decades long interest in World Music and the proof embedded in its output. Before imperialism and colonialism tore apart the lives and cultures of people all over the world, music had no center, and Western Music was just that, music of the west, of Europe. There wasn’t a correct way to play music then and there isn’t one now. 

Being a guitar player means immediate disengagement from the official or institutional world of music, and that is a huge part of its appeal for me. It was clear to me the first time I heard this version of the guitar being played that it was not being used to satisfy anyone more highly placed in society than me or the other people hearing it. It was meant to reach people in as many ways as possible. There wasn’t a hierarchy overseeing guitar, it was do-it-yourself. Or, as I tell all of my students, the entire history, repertoire and technique for steel-string guitar was invented by the people who play it. There is no formal pedagogy for it. Once you figure out where things are on it you are welcome to either play it using the inventions that already exist for it, or invent your own way to play it. Most guitarists do quite a bit of the former, some stop there, and some, like me, focus on inventing.

As I became more aware of the guitar through listening to the Beatles, Hendrix, etc, it was easy to hear that what influenced the guitar playing was not “classical” at all, it was folk music. and an adventurous interpretation of nearly everything else that existed in music put to use at the player’s discretion. When I started to play guitar in 1970 I understood that one invention was essential to the whole thing, the blues—itself a perfect example and manifestation of the disregard for Western European Music.  And so I dug deeply into that.

The guitar was already dictating the terms of contemporary music in the egalitarian sense. Jimi Hendrix had expanded the value of the blues and revolutionized the use of guitar as an  electronic sound making instrument. George Harrison had earlier included the influence of Indian Classical music in his guitar playing. Many in my generation engaged in the analysis of the techniques being used on guitar as we might if we were studying European Classical Composition. It was becoming clear that the guitar could be used to make deep, challenging, serious music. All of this inspired me to focus my life on becoming an original guitarist. 

That goal wasn’t any easier back then than it is now. Attempting it required that I open my mind, practice hard and learn everything I could. A big change occured when I heard John McLaughlin. My friends and I were shocked by what he played, we couldn’t understand any of it. To us he was the guitarist who was after Hendrix, in that he had the originality, the power, the complexity, and the skill to match Jimi but with many of the same and many completely different materials and a different mode of expression. And unlike Hendrix, he could read music, which gave him an altogether different capability. This drove us to study in a whole new way. We practiced scales and modes, learned to read music, learned to play jazz tunes, and studied harmony and music theory, and learned all we could about music of the world. Ultimately I became focused on Jazz and improvisation which quickly filled in the information that I was lacking in understanding why the guitar was working in that way in that period.

What I observed in the guitar music I admired, was that the synthesis of influences and materials—the liberal interpretation of every aspect of those things—and the determination to invent something wholly different than Western Classical Music was based on the foundation of jazz in every period, every idiom and every innovation. With the help I received from studying the great jazz artists of the 70’s who in their statements made it clear that their tradition was one rooted in innovation, one that resulted from unique synthesis of anything that suited their interests. That didn’t happen because they weren’t capable of doing the other thing, they went their own way because they were shut out of the chance to participate in the classical music world due to racism.

The jazz scene seemed to have one qualifying rule for membership beyond the ability to play something, respect, for the people in it, for their ideas and for the music they made. I would add to that the respect for the subversive value of jazz, which intentionally defies the notion that any one race or group owns music or any other cultural object. Jazz also offered a different range of expression, from deeply spiritual to completely logical and everything in between.  Now I had found my direction, my teachers, my life, and I set out to add what I could to the story of that music by doing something new on the guitar.

As I mentioned John McLaughlin had changed everything for me and my peers. Because of him I absorbed everything I could listen to and read about to understand Miles Davis, and especially John Coltrane, who led me to Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. And the latter group led me to the AACM and European Free Improvisation. 

The early 1970’s was a golden era for improvisation and the artists who were defining it were capable of eloquently articulating their ideas and methodologies. (Much of the material they synthesized came from 20th Century Classical Music just as earlier jazz styles drew from western harmony. Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Derek Bailey were essential. Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith (who in that period lived in my hometown New Haven, Connecticut) were especially valuable resources. In interviews, and liner notes their points on African-American Music being a tradition of innovation—one that sourced materials from folk and classical music— set the terms that I followed. In particular they and other musicians from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had done very intentional work on creating solo music, so by the mid 1970’s there was an abundance of solo recordings available and solo performances to attend. They set a kind of expectation for me that was very exciting. Solo work really highlighted the individual technical inventions of the player. Creating solo guitar music became a prime goal for me.

Back then the guitar was going through a radical transformation and the effect of McLaughlin’s work had descended into fusion , which didn’t hold my interest for long. I looked elsewhere and found Sonny Sharrock (who had worked with Ayler) Derek Bailey and Keith Rowe. Those are obvious examples, and to me, they were completed, so I also listened to what I felt were untapped sources like Doc Watson, Baden Powell, Leo Kottke, Ralph Towner, and especially blues players, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Django Rheinhart and every significant jazz guitarist. This broad survey revealed that something else was possible.

The full spectrum of jazz and improvised music had configured its music in operational methodology, or ways to play alone and in groups. Some of that was applied use of a harmonic structure but the newer versions were either melodic structure or sound structure.

The combination of all these instrumental and improvisational influences caused me to determine that there was an opportunity to combine more than just the obvious parts—a kind of syntheses of the synthesis that allowed me to compose and improvise by creating composite pieces. By that I mean every bit of material in every larger musical example could be combined with any other, or taken as they were and made to function differently in combination with any other thing. I began this process in 1974. It’s grown as I have acquired a better understanding and control of it. I specifically seperated my guitar playing into functional settings, New Jazz, which was group music, solo, and extended techniques, or invented ways to play the instrument. 

Over the years I have drawn on non-western, non-european music to solve the objectives of composition and improvisation. West African string music is fundamental to everything I play. Of course there is no blues guitar without it. To build my technique I’ve drawn influence from the African instruments kora, n’goni, halam, zintir, guimbre, riti, indingiti, gonje, and burundi bass zither. I’ve also drawn from Tibetan Buddist Chant, Javanese and Balanese Gamelan, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean traditional music. I’ve combined these materials with guitar techniques, and improvisational methodologies which are also combined materials.

Rather than use the classical guitar picking hand technique I chose to use the delta blues guitar version, and combined it with a simulated version of the picking used on a kora, which is a harp technique, I combined that with Unit Structures, Cecil Taylor’s methodology.  My l fingerboard hand technique was developed as a combination of blues single-note phrasing and jazz saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and violin phrasing, particularly from the free jazz canon, which can all be cited as sourced to particular players and in many cases by the exact point in a passage they played. At one point it was clear to me that in addition to plucking the strings I needed to find a way to bow them. Many guitarists used a violin bow. The problem with that is that you need rosin for the bow and the rosin ruins the strings. So I chose to just use the guitar pick sideways. My inspiration for this was the riti a West African one-string fiddle. I’ve employed accented, implied and proportional expressions of pulse in all of my music.

I have allowed my own creative decision-making to guide me to choose materials that help me to build techniques to fulfill my musical objectives. And I’ve created notations that signify these things. I have also identified and scored particular characteristics from musical sources that I wish to employ in my playing using single symbols that denote the names I have given them. 

Clearly there are many things in my music sourced from Western European music, such as named pitches, equal temperament, scales, chords, harmony, meter, standard and graphic notation, and I greatly admire the music of Messiaen, Gubaidulina, Panderecki, Varese, Scodanibbio, and many others. But like my core inspirations I’ve used all of that in my own way, with little regard for and tradition they might be associated with. My goal was never to gain a place or have my work approved through the standard of classical music. I do it this way to follow what I’ve learned from African music, that music is the vessel of history that marks our time in sound and rhythm. I rely on improvisation because it facilitates that goal more efficiently and it offers my audience the chance to have a unique experience with every performance. One that allows them to decide its meaning based on how it marks the moment they hear it not on an academic explanation of its value in history.