A new way of writing music, and all that jazz


Trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith has replaced the traditional music notation of lines and notes with something more jazz-friendly, he tells ARMINTA WALLACE

WRITING MUSIC down is, when you think about it, a pretty hit-and-miss undertaking. The conventional music notation we all recognise consists of a relatively primitive set of graphics – two sets of five parallel lines to represent two hands. Although it has served western classical music well for centuries, it can’t cope with improvisation; nor can it indicate timbre, or mood, or the relationship of one musician to another. In terms of jazz, some world music and much contemporary electronic composition it is restrictive to the point of irrelevance.

Which is why the Mississippi-born trumpet player, composer, improviser and musical philosopher Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith has come up with his own method of getting music on to the page. His is not a notation system, but a kind of “road map” for the spontaneity and beauty of the creative process. Its colours, shapes and symbols make it a lot more attractive to look at than the old straight-lines-and-spaces notation – although hardly any easier for the untrained eye to read.

The dreadlocked Smith doesn’t do things by halves, as his virtuoso name suggests. He started out as plain Leo Smith, adding the Wadada when he became a Rastafarian in the 1980s. The Ishmael is a recent, Islamic addition. Smith is a practising Muslim who, when he’s at home in California – where he teaches at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles – rises at 3.30am, goes to bed at sunset, and cooks and eats organic. He regards music and life as a single entity; one cannot, he says, take place without reference to the other.

Musically, his range of expertise is jaw-dropping. Smith is as much at home with live electronics as he is with contemporary classical composition, Indonesian gamelan and avant-garde jazz. He calls his scoring system “ankhrasmation”, a term he spliced together from the ancient Egyptian word for the life force, ankh, the Amharic word for father, ras, and the word “ma”, the universal sound for mother.

Ankhrasmation music is utterly democratic in the sense that a score by Smith can apply equally to a tabla ensemble, a jazz trio or a classical quartet. “It uses no pictures of notes, no designs of notes; it’s a symbolic interpretation of what’s there,” is how Smith explains it. “It is a way of making music that has a little bit of both improvisation and composition inside it, but it’s an entirely different thing because it’s all symbolic.”

Smith will have plenty more to say about ankhrasmation when he gives a talk on the topic at University College, Cork, tomorrow. It’s a kind of appetiser for the musical main course, when he will join the improvisation group Mathilde 253 for concerts in Cork and Dublin.

Formed to explore “the spontaneous mash-up of avant-rock, African-American creative musics, and European free improvisation and noise”, Mathilde 253 will set up the perfect musical ambience for Smith’s free-ranging trumpet: expect the unexpected, is about all that should be said in advance of the gigs. The Dublin concert will offer an additional musical treat in the shape of some opening solo improvisations by the pianist Paul G Smyth, of Boys of Summer and The Jimmy Cake.

Smith, now in his 60s, was raised in the Mississippi Delta – his stepfather was a blues musician, and their house a sort of Grand Central Music Station – and has been steeped in blues and jazz since childhood.

In his early teens, he began to explore the music of military bands. He wrote his first piece of music at the age of 12 when, as he explained in 2007 to a panel of experts at San Francisco’s Improv 21 festival, he knew only five or six notes on the trumpet.

“I started with the notes I knew,” Smith says. “I used them first. Then I used some I didn’t know.”

He knows them all now, and plenty besides. Smith’s trumpet-playing is astonishingly skilful, although not, as he likes to point out, in a strictly jazzy way. Good job he has a singular name: he is, for sure, a singular soul.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith and Mathilde 253 play the Half Moon Theatre in Cork tomorrow and the the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Thursday. The lecture is on tomorrow at the O’Riada Hall in UCC, admission free; music.ucc.ie