Charlie Morrow Composes by Numbers March 31, 1975

I’ve been acquainted with Charlie Morrow and his music for about six years now, and if there’s one thing I ought to know, it is that his work is unpredictable. He is quite capable of turning out a tv jingle in the morning, working on an atonal score in the afternoon, and improvising on a Tibetan scale with the New Wilderness Preservation Society in the evening. And none of these activities would interfere in the least if, the 1975/jackson-mac-low-anagramusic day, he wanted to practice his experimental vocal techniques, or continue his research into the sounds made by fish, or outline some film project, or paint a multicolored poster-size score of some sort, or perhaps design an electronic circuit which would somehow improve his recording studio, or hustle over to Madison Avenue for a demonstration. For anyone else such variety might be chaos, but for Morrow it all seems completely natural. He wears all of his hats quite easily, and while he doesn’t follow through on some of his projects, he completes many of them quite skilfully.

Even knowing something about the extraordinary diversity of Morrow’s talents and interests, his loft concert at 224 Center Street on March 16 caught me completely by surprise. In retrospect, I can see that his artistic projects have been moving toward more and more rational forms for quite a while, but I never thought he would go this far. Morrow’s ‘The Number Six’ is easily the most extreme musical statement I have heard all season, and it seems particularly significant, as it is the first clear indication I have picked up that musicians may be getting interested in some of the highly deductive and logical types of expression that I have been running across in art galleries lately.

Sitting at a little table surrounded by six microphones, Morrow read for almost an hour and a half, his entire vocabulary consisting of the numbers one through six. For each number there was a particular loudspeaker. The resulting stereophonic effect plus the rhythmic way in which he delivered the numbers, sometimes speaking and sometimes whispering, was enough to justify the performance as a musical event as far as I was concerned. But the musical elements were basically decoration. The emphasis was always on the numerical sequences themselves. All the patterns became predictable after a while, yet they were always intricate enough that it took a fair amount of concentration to keep up with the logic. One of the seven parts which make up the complete piece starts off like this.

1; 1; 1, 2; 1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; 1, 2; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3; etc.

You may think, as I did at first, that there’s a mistake or two there, but assuming that the typesetter didn’t mess it up, it is correct, and if you ponder the sequence for a while, the exact rules will become clear. If you are asked to ponder such things for a whole long performance, you might not even care after a while. About half the audience left this performance within the first 30 or 40 minutes, and that was not hard to understand. After all, no one had ever reduced music to pure logic quite so drastically, and Morrow was not about to make concessions in the idea just for the sake of making it palatable and entertaining. It was one of those cases where the idea itself took over. Once the logic and the numbers got going, there was nothing Morrow or anyone else could do to stop them before they had completed their patterns.

By means of clarifying how Morrow arrived at ‘The Number Six,’ I should mention a couple of the many earlier Morrow works which led up to it. In a short unaccompanied song called ‘Cloud Song,’ written some months ago, there is a logical system which determines whether the singer should sing the lyrics or simply hum. The first time through, one sings the lyrics only on the first few notes of the first phrase and the first few notes of the second phrase. On each repeat, more words are added until the fourth time through, when one sings the lyrics all the way through. There are three more repeats, during which the words drop out again, though the simple tonal melody always remains the same.

At one of the New Wilderness events this winter an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists presented Morrow’s version of a hymn from that wonderful Appalachian hymnal ‘The Sacred Harp.’ The first time through, the music was sung perfectly straight. The second time through, each accented syllable was sung twice. The third time through, the accented syllables came three times, and so forth, up to six. It was an exceedingly simple logical process, but it sent the old hymn through a remarkable cycle of metrical changes. And as in most of Morrow’s systematic pieces, the logic was totally perceivable. One doesn’t need to know a thing about music to hear what is going on in a case like this.

Of course, there is nothing new about logical musical processes. The old isorhythmic motet was an extremely rigid form of deductive music, and the somewhat looser 12-tone system was almost a standard vocabulary for a while. More recently, composers have devised systematic processes whereby rhythmic patterns are repeated over and over juxtaposed in different ways, until they have been presented in every possible combination. Another logical process I’ve encountered fairly often lately involves tacking extra notes onto the end of a melody, so that a two-note pattern gradually grows into a very long phrase.

All these processes, however, still involve working with ordinary notes. With ‘The Number Six,’ I think Morrow has made a fairly big jump into a more conceptual realm, where numbers rather than notes become the musical material. It seems similar to the jump which painting made recently from the rational gridwork and checkerboard paintings of minimalists to the instructions, number games, and geometric demonstrations of the conceptualists. Whether this attitude will become important to other musicians in the future is anyone’s guess. And only a fool would attempt to predict what Morrow himself will do 1975/jackson-mac-low-anagramusic.