Clap hands, here comes Charlie

The New York label XI Records has compiled TOOT! (XI 135) a three CD set of the music and sound art of Charlie Morrow, an American sound artist and composer who has been making music for about 50 years and yet does not appear to be that well-documented in terms of tangible releases. When you see the picture of his benign visage grinning from beneath a bowler hat, a piece of headgear which is one of the man’s “trademarks”, you might make mental associations with the late work of Rene Magritte, and might be forgiven for thinking we’re dealing with an eccentric/maverick along the lines of Charlemagne Palestine, Terry Riley or La Monte Young, all of whom have also displayed a penchant for colourful and unusual hats. However, where those three can be characterised within the “minimalism” school, Morrow is far harder to pigeon-hole. The first disc alone has a near-bewildering mix of sounds – field recordings, conch-blowing, ensemble compositions for horns or strings played quite slowly, a bittersweet tape-collage using the voice of Marilyn Monroe, and an overdub piece of chanting music sung by Morrow himself and resembling the voices of two undiscovered Inuits discovering throat-music through the aid of a shamanic medium.

All of these things are pointers to Morrow’s wide ranging interests, which include birdsong, windsounds, music derived from breathing and the rhythm of the human heartbeat, and a playful feel for “lowbrow” sources which almost aligns him with Morton Feldman and his love of a good greasy cheeseburger. Morrow’s a composer too. His ‘Central Park’ compositions are not simply made by sticking microphones in the trees of Manhattan’s green lung, but through the painstaking reconstruction and arrangement of scientific recordings retrieved from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His long-form ‘Wave Music’ works, two of which are represented here on Disc Two, deploy large ensembles of musicians in certain locations and are conducted in such ways to follow, very slowly, the passage of time-based events; one of them attempts to mimic the “transition of sunset colours”, as if the composer has found a way to bypass conventional scoring and used the energy of nature alone to fuel his music. There’s also ‘TOOT N BLINK Chicago’, a beautifully rugged piece which co-ordinates a fleet of sea vessels alongside Chicago’s Navy’s Pier, where the captains sounded their horns and flashed their lights in accordance with voice commands relayed by radio. This is just to pass on a flavour of the collection, but I hope it conveys something of Morrow’s scope and breadth, which is impressive and grand, and seems concerned with shaping the totality of a musical environment. There’s not a piece of music on here which seems remotely capable of being contained by the restrictions of Carnegie Hall, and indeed the confines of a concert hall are clearly quite inappropriate in this context.

There’s plenty more music, and factual information to absorb; Morrow was a member of Tone Roads in the 1960s, where he played trumpet alongside Philip Corner, James Tenney and Malcolm Goldstein, which may help you situate him a little more (for me, Corner and Goldstein are two of my personal favourite NY composer-performers, and we’ve the Alga Marghen, New World Records and XI Records labels to thank for exposing more of their fascinating music). Morrow was also manager of something called the New Wilderness Foundation through the 1970s and 1980s, which though it sounds like it ought to have been a nature reserve programme, was in fact devoted to making cross-cultural artistic events of all sorts come to fruition. Plus he’s invented a stadium-scale playback PA system, and trademarked it as the Morrow Cube. Aye, American composers often think big and they do an awful lot of amazing things; I haven’t yet encountered the name of Richard Lerman in the pages of the booklet here, but I expect to do so soon when I’ve finished perusing the mini-essays by Julian Cowley, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Freedman and Michael J. Schumacher. To us repressed English types, these notes are almost embarrassingly effusive in their generous praise for Morrow’s achievements, extolling the mystical dimension to breaking point, and you may come away with the feeling you’re about the hear the combined forces of Buddha, Descartes and Rachel Carson rolled into a single charismatic figure. Instead what emerges is quiet, modest, natural, slow, organic and near-magical music, benevolent and life-affirming.