Creative Process of Morgan Powell

Morgan Powell Composer

by Patricia Hruby Powell


This is a paper written for a class at Temple University – Creative Process

An artist composes of himself and his times. Morgan Powell has been known as the simplest of people and the most complex at the same time. Virtuoso trumpeter, Ray Sasaki, who has played Morgan’s compositions more than most has said, “Morgan’s writing is the most honest writing I’ve ever played. Before we knew each other well I was compelled to work on his pieces which were extremely difficult–so difficult they might at first appear inconsiderate to a trumpet player; but by working on them I only get better at playing. His pieces reflect my idea of the man. He’s the most simple person I’ve ever met and equally the most complex person I’ve ever met.”

This complex simple man, a mature artist, is true to his life and background. He was raised in west Texas, an only child, by a constant Mother, and an occasional Father, both quite a bit older than the normal parents. He was very much the loner by circumstance and by nature. Morgan was born old and powerful into a financially poor family and made his amusement for and by himself. This youthful cowboy found endless hours of adventure shooting rattle snakes from his horse in the west Texas dust. He was and is a rebel, a man of few words, but the words spoken are important; he is in no particular hurry as tomorrow will dawn another day; a man who still loves wide open spaces, who has been ambitious, but the ambition has become a distant second to his love for people. Here is a man of many dichotomies.

The Person–His Dichotomies

The simple complex man, who Ed London calls the composer trombonist, combonist tromposer, who composes the complex simple music, is a man of simple and deep honesty.

Morgan, the rebel cowboy stands for right·, the incorruptible man. Fellow Texan, composer and friend, Jim Lewis, says in his slow drawling circular, yet, emphatic way, “Morgan seems so agreeable, yet he’s so damn uncompromising.” Morgan’s demands on himself are high; his demands on others who call themselves artists are high; and yet he is a humble man. An image Morgan uses to describe his composition, I use to describe the person. Looking at one moment in one light, he is the arrogant demanding rebel cowboy artist, and seen in another moment when the light casts an alternate relationship, as the light catches a hanging, shifting mobile, Morgan is the questioning humble individual. These traits are also part of his teaching.

Of teaching, he’s said, ”The only thing worth teaching is to buck the establishment–the status quo–for in doing so you teach people what the establishment was and is–history–and who was and is part of and who wasn’t and isn’t part of it. In that way you teach concepts from which to derive technique. For better or worse, Western man is interested in progress.”

Morgan never got drawn into popular trends in music composition, though opportunities have been available to him through his abundant jazz band and dance band playing. As a boy and young man, and to support a wife and two babies, he played his trombone two and three nights every weekend in dance bands in Texas, on tour, and then in Illinois. He was commissioned to write popular arrangements and because the support of his young family was imminent, he tried. He completed a few of these, all of which were ”failures”. ”There was too much of me in them,11 he has said. And there’s too much rebel in him to write successful commercial music. He never again made the foray into commercial popular music.

In Fellini’s 8 1/2 it’s said, “It’s better to destroy than to make the unnecessary,” in the context of destroying the movie he has made. Morgan would destroy his work if he judged it superfluous. In an already polluted world, why clutter it more? “I don’t need to hear ‘pretty music’ or see pretty art of any kind. A flower is both beautiful and interesting. Nature is that and much more. Art has to be something else for me…One can be creative in his/her garden and give self and others much pleasure from it, but Art should continue a line of one of the many fingers which have been created in centuries of creative work by the artists. This idea is consistent in science as well. As in art, new ideas (propositions) are followed through in science. Some continue as valid, others fall by the wayside. Maybe it’s time to ask ‘Is there really room for everyone’s everything?’ At best, art teaches me something — makes me think — inspires me to act.”(Journal)

In the light of his extreme confidence bordering on arrogance, he is also humble, and very visibly so. He is a confidante to many people of many ages. I’ve heard this statement from a young engineering student, and many more similar ones stating, “He knows so much, he’s done so much, yet he wants to listen to me. He’s interested in what I say, in what I think.” Morgan is a natural teacher and guide and a great help to many people of all ages and walks of life.

As most every artist must deal with some criticism at some point in a career, Morgan quietly questions, a humbling and important activity. He wrote, “Can I not successfully blend who I am and what I think into a viable form? Am I still a light weight in the world of heavy weights. Am I misunderstood? Do I misunderstand?” Philosophically, and wisely, he has said, “Success is not that great, and neither is failure, The extreme idea is man-made…in nature there is no such thing as success and failure. Life and death is the natural order. The more important success is, the more important failure will be to an individual.”

“I’d rather be playing the blues in a whore house than attending a Carnegie Hall new-music debut.” Morgan tells more of himself in this one line than a thousand words could tell.

The dichotomy of the Powell anger versus the extreme sweetness is found throughout his music in dynamic changes. Musicians have said that Morgan’s music belongs on compact disc due to the extreme volume range. On a recording the softs can be lost if the volume highs are at a listenable range. Morgan has theorized on this range of emotion, and it goes back to his Texas dust days. The pre-school days, free to roam, atop his horse, was a happy world that he loved and solely controlled, an existence that allowed him the complete freedom in which he thrived. When he was seven and sent to school he was yanked out of his Morgan-world into a caustic and macho Texas social world. In time he became successful in that world, which terrified him, but it nurtured a life-long anger which feeds his music composition. I believe the sweetness is his innate state.

The ambition aspect, I contrast to his love of people; and the two are actually separated by time. His ambition was in full blossom from his youth and probably originates in those first school days when he was coerced to prove himself amidst his schoolmates. Then he became an athlete because that was the route to success in that environment. Later in high school he snubbed imminent football stardom in a small west Texas town to play trombone in the band; and he has been a great success at that (when he chooses to direct his energy there) to the extent that some ten years ago he was alleged by various musicians as being the hottest jazz trombonist they’d ever heard. Then Morgan gained success as a composer, receiving commissions from organizations such as the Spoleto Festival and Cleveland Chamber Symphony; grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; debuts at Carnegie Hall. By the time of some of these latter successes he no longer strived for success because he had discovered he loved people and that had become his obsession and focus. He has said recently, “Composition is a task to be fulfilled in a creative exacting, soulful way. It’s a game. It brings my friends together for a good purpose.” Specifically, he is referring to the 1981 formation of the Tone Road Ramblers, a touring collection of six virtuosic musicians which Morgan founded, writes music for, and plays trombone with. Dr. Edwin London describes this in his liner notes for Morgan’s Music for Brass record.

“It is apparent that the compositions in this album were written for people with whom the composer has lived and worked. This model of extended family becoming harmonious society (in which plangent intonations of solitude as well as dialogue carried on between involved caring companions points towards peace and meaning) provides stark contrasts to an existence previously driven by the cares associated with distress, reactive competitiveness, and morbid mortality. Isn’t the present model worth studying more deeply?”

The idea of ambition could also be contrasted to laziness, which Morgan has also enthusiastically pursued as he has fanatically pursued ambition and then friendship. “I’m lazy. Laziness has its good attributes. You don’t force out a lot of crap. What little you do has to be good.” As is demonstrated in the Time Line and on the List of Compositions, from 1981 to 1985, six of the twelve compositions are music for dance (for the author, in fact), and the other six are highly improvisational and composed for the Tone Road amblers. These twelve pieces kept him active in composition when he was much more compelled to be “lazy”. In 1985 he returned whole heartedly to writing pitches with “Ray’s In the Window” and “Suite Changes”.

The idea of loving people or socialness is then, contrasted to aloneness, solitude. He writes in his journal, “My awkwardness, it would seem…lingers on and on. I don’t fit into a slot. I’ve always been put down by jazzers as a “legit writer” and by legit cats as a jazzer. Neither wants me in their world. And I don’t feel part of either’s world either. As a humanist, I feel more akin with jazzers–performers and writers, but especially performers. I’m still a misunderstood misfit with awkward ways, and stubborn enough to live my life and no one else’s. I will not be bound by others’ straight lines and capsules.” Within the profession of music, Morgan has felt an outsider. Personally, Morgan has carried with him, from his early Texas days, his desire for solitude; yet he is a social animal to an extreme degree. At a party he will be surrounded by friends, laughing (probably) at their own expense, instigated by Morgan’s rapier wit, but truthful and in some basic way, housed in warmth. Whereas Morgan has always been loved by people, he discovered his deep love for them only once he’d established himself in his musical career and could relax enough to sort out what was truly important in his world. And then, People and Friendship, which were his all along, became a primary pursuit, true to his fanatical tendencies.

Those early days playing dance band “gigs”, to make desperately needed dollars, were not wasted. He was an audience watcher, a people watcher. During gigs he watched the rich Texas oil baron society in action; he watched the poor rural V.F.W. set in their environment, partying; and this became fuel for his insight which would influence his compositional forms. In the last five years the majority of his own work has examined and commented upon the individual in society. Suitably enough, these are the same works that, as a group, are highly improvisational. The individual improvises daily within the structure of society.

The last dichotomy I’ll introduce is the cerebral versus the intuitive which is a necessary fusion for any artist. Morgan expresses the opinion that the individual who is a fanatic about design but has lost childish intuition of play, writes dismally dull music. The finest artist is a combination of the mature and the child.

The Process

Morgan Powell, Renegade Cowboy, does not write any one definable style of music; yet various pieces fall under the idea that Gunther Schuller, composer and publisher, coined as Third Stream. This fusion of jazz and modern classicism is a natural extension of a serious composer who began his career in jazz and dance bands as Morgan did. His music is almost always atonal. Yet Morgan is not bound to the strictness of atonality or Third Stream anything. He writes what he wants heard, what he has to say, without concern for a style or genus of music composition.

The distinction, here, is writing what he wants to hear or have heard, not what he hears. What he hears is what he plays when he’s performing on his trombone with a jazz group, and this is highly intuitive, but of course it’s also the result of extensive knowledge and experience. What he wants heard is a more cerebral or intellectual activity, he says, at the initial stage of composition. The process is divided into: precise intellectual planning and intuitive editing.

The first or pre-compositional stage is a matter of defining musical parameters, such as choosing pitches, register (instrumental ranges being the limits), dynamics, durations and timber. This might be done by formula, perhaps by generating the pitch matrix with the aid of a computer. His concern with balance, and symmetry play a strong role in structuring a piece. The idea of symmetry might dictate the durations into a formula to be used throughout the piece or portions of the piece. Yet, be assured that all portions answer to the central scheme or design.

The second or compositional stage is the intuitive stage, where the pre-compositional cerebral design is severely edited on the basis of intuition. Here, the rules are broken wherever necessary as quality judgements are applied.

Morgan likens this system to an architect’s system of building. There is the strong foundational design that is absolutely necessary and operates on a subliminal or basic level. The exterior is freely applied and embellished as the structure will permit. As composer, he reaches inside the structure to pull out the interior. Without the foundational design the building would crumble.

Morgan believes the cerebral pre-compositional stage is how he gets started on a piece. Once he begins, creativity is like reaching into a box. He reaches into the box inside, and then into the box inside that one, and again deeper into the next interior box, pulling out ideas from within.

This cerebral-then-intuitive process might result in the structuring of a new cell that doesn’t fit within the foundation parameters. Yet once heard, this new material might be of interest to the composer.

This cell might become the basis for the next piece. A cell born of intellectual means might not be intellectual at all, but deeply imbedded in the intuition, so who is to say what is precisely of the mind and what of the soul? There’s hardly a black line that defines the one from the other.

Morgan describes his idea of composition as Garbage Soup. The old leftovers, the new stuff, good stuff, the bad old and the good old stuff get cooked together. There are different tastes in the soup, all the dichotomies: happiness and intense sadness, confusion and lucidity, arrogance and humbleness, socialness and solitude, anger and sweetness, all spiced with Tabasco like the food he eats. Everything is going on at the same time, but the listener can’t see or hear everything till he, the composer, brings things out and you, the listener taste them. Bon apetit.

Another image he’s used to describe his compositions is that of the hanging mobile. From A, hangs a, b, c, d: from B, hangs e, f, g, b. As the mobile shifts in the air current, each element is seen in a new relationship in a changed context. Therefore, the integrity of the element is changed, yet it is still precisely itself. This, in fact, describes the pre-compositional stage and the matrix of possibilities of the compositional factors, yet it is set in a metaphor that is suggestive of intuition as well as intellect. A line is drawn to describe a process in which intellect is one stage and intuition is another, yet one limits the complexity of the intuition-intellect intermingling, in an attempt to describe the process. The two are separated for matters of clarification, yet in reality they’re hardly separable entities. Don’t we limit the process by halting its flow and viewing it under a microscope? Werner Heisenberg, who established the Indeterminacy Principle theorized that by measuring a moving particle (the electron), the viewer alters the flow, its integrity; and therefore flow and size cannot be accurately measured, by measuring one you alter the other. This theory can be applied to sociological situations, such as the anthropologist viewing a People, Margaret Mead viewing the Samoans.

How did the Samoans really behave? And what about the artist’s process? Isn’t it far more complex than we can begin to describe? Yet, it seems appropriate to take an idea, like the Indeterminacy Principle, and set it in new contexts to see how it alters the idea, because that is precisely what Morgan Powell does in his composing process.