Michael Swartz, saxophone.
FROM THE FIRST TIME WE MET, I knew I would someday write a piece for Michael Swartz. the surprise is that it took me almost a decade. but that’s understandable. Michael works with improvisation, somewhere on the boundary between jazz and the avant-garde, while my work in recent years has been carefully notated. In 1986, however, I conceived of a work that would incorporate Michael’s extensive improvisational ability into a tightly controlled structure reflecting both my musical ideas and my sense of organization.
The resulting score, Thirty-One Days, consists of seven basic units of source material – some, melodies traditionally notated, others, lines more graphic and suggestive in nature. In performance, this material is subjected to an elaborate set of transformations controlled by a thirty-one part, Fibonacci-based structure. The effect produced by this form is one of similarity. The music sounds related, but not repetitive, because the score requires that each repetition of one of the basic units must always be reinterpreted with a new shade of meaning.
Almost immediately I foresaw the problem of how to maintain the spontaneity of Michael’s playing within the framework of a score that requires extensive rehearsal. To overcome this I decided that Thirty-One Days could never be casually practiced or played. Instead, Michael, and all future performers, are strictly limited to one daily reading of the score on each of the thirty days immediately preceding a performance. The actual performance is the daily reading on the thirty-first day.
Band 1, which is the solo version, was recorded in this manner. It is unedited and unaltered. Band 2 is a seven-track ensemble version, made by recording on multi-track tape seven of the daily readings of the score during the final two weeks of preparation. These basic track were then used as a source material from which a final version was mixed. Basically, mixing was a process of elimination. Bob Spangler and I began with the unintelligible density of seven solo tracks and slowly reduced each section, track by track, until it became musical. All juxtapositions of voices are as they originally occurred on the master tape; nothing has been moved or altered. The structural control exerted on Michael by the score is more obvious in the ensemble version, where noises collide, and source material plays counterpoint with itself.
— William Duckworth
Michael Swartz was born in Mahanoy City, PA, a rural town in the center of the coal-mining region. A composer as well as a saxophonist, he was completely self-taught until after high school, when he went to New York to study with La Monte Young, whom he had read about and felt drawn to but whose music he had never heard. Several years later, in 1976, he studied briefly with Philip Corner and, through John Cage, subsequently met William Duckworth. Swartz made his New York debut as a composer/performer in 1977 at the Appleby Studio. In addition to performing his own music, he has recorded with Bedfull of Metaphysicians, and has led several ensembles, including a jazz trio in New York featuring drummer Denis Charles and bassist Sahib Sarbib.
IT WAS A BLEAK, DAMP, CHILLY Monday morning in February. Crusted snow in the gutters. Pennsylvania, which is so lovely most of the year, can be loke that in February. My friend Bill Duckworth and I drove down from his home in Lewisburg to the Susquehanna Sound Studios in Northumberland. We didn’t talk much. We’d been together all weekend and had talked ourselves out. Besides, it was Monday morning, etc. When we arrived at Susquehanna Sound, which is in an ordinary, homely house in a working-class neighborhood, we were met by Bob Spangler, owner and chief engineer, and were taken into the control room. A truly impressive layout; enough controls to run a ship. Susquehanna Sound is the best recording studio by far in that part of the country. Then Michael Swartz arrived.
A sweet guy. He speaks softly and smiles a lot. His authority, which is commanding, is in his music. He went into the recording chamber, took off his coat and the old knitted cap he was wearing, unslung his horn, and began warming up. Bill and Bob and I were talking, not paying much attention to Michael’s noodling, but after three or four minutes he motioned to us, indicating he was ready. The recording began. Michael has a wonderful alto tone, and as he played the basic theme of Thirty-One Days, which I knew from Bill’s score, I realized a year had gone by since I’d heard him the last time. Now it was a real pleasure to shut out everything else and just listen.
And then, perhaps a minute or two into his performance, the marvel began. Musicians know that when they’re truly on, a kind of spontaneous and instinctive judiciousness takes over, blending every element – texture, dynamics, rhythmic and harmonic improvisation, freedom and discipline – into a work controlled by whatever you like to call it: feeling, meaning, the purity and complexity of utter intention. This was the thirty-first day. Michael had explored this work thirty times already. But what he was doing now was a good deal more than recapitulation; it was the gathering together, as Bill had intended, of all these thirty prior experiences, shaped in a new image, given a new context, which had evolved out of itself. While he played Michael stepped here and there in the studio as if he were crossing a pond on stepping stones, bending a little forward, with an intense yet joyful expression on his face. A couple of times he went to a corner and aimed his horn into a wall, to get a distancing effect. And when it was over he lowered his horn and for a moment looked as if he were puzzled.
I don’t altogether remember what happened then, except that later the same day, after a routine drive, I was at home again in Syracuse, NY. And about a month after that I received in the mail a tape of both the solo performance, which I had heard Michael record, and the mixed-down ensemble version made by Bill and Bob from various performances. I think both of them are extraordinary. When Bill first told me his idea, at lunch one day in Lewisburg almost a year before the recordings were made, I thought it was interesting but perhaps too unwieldy; when I first saw his score, with its intricate numbering and lettering systems and its blot-like passages, I couldn’t imagine how the final work would sound. But Bill’s insight has been fully borne out. Thirty-One Days is a rich, expressive, compelling work of art, a remarkable collaboration between composer and performer.
— Hayden Carruth
Recorded and mixed at Susquehanna Sound, Northumberland, PA.
¾-inch U-matic transfer by Bill Kipper, Masterdisk Corporation, New York City.
Manufactured at Discovery Systems, Dublin, OH.
Produced by William Duckworth.
Band 1 engineered by Bob Spangler and Bret Alexander.
Band 2 engineered and mixed by Bob Spangler and William Duckworth.
Photograph by Terry Wild.
Design: By Design.
© 1987 William Duckworth (ASCAP)
©P 1987 Lovely Music, Ltd.