By Brian Wise | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
For his forthcoming String Quartet No. 17, Wadada Leo Smith has chosen the U.S. Capitol building as its theme, recognizing both an edifice of democracy and a site of gridlock and violent insurrection. Smith’s previous string quartet, introduced in June, was dedicated to the passengers of United Flight 93, the airliner that was hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11. And the String Quartets Nos. 13 through 15 are meditations on the corresponding amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Presenting a roiling assortment of people, events, and landmarks in American history, Smith’s quartets have been gaining wider notice. String Quartets Nos. 1–12 are featured on a new box set on TUM Records, performed by the RedKoral Quartet, a group he formed in 2013 for the purpose of presenting his string works. Included on the set are quartets dedicated to civil rights figures (Angela Davis), pioneering Black musicians (George Walker, Louis Armstrong), writers (Haki R. Madhubuti), and members of his own family.
These tend to be abstract, non-narrative portraits, and hardly anyone’s idea of programmatic music. As a conversationalist, however, the 80-year-old Smith is eager to take questions and deliver succinct stories and pronouncements.
“I’ve always liked string quartet music,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “A lot of people think it’s far-fetched when I say that I grew up listening to electric guitars and things like that. Nearly all of my high violin parts are kind of influenced or impacted by that.”
Smith cites his String Quartet No. 3, completed in 1995 and titled Black Church: A First World Gathering of the Spirit. “Most of those blues guys will say, ‘Well, we don’t hear no blues in your music.’ That’s too bad because Black Church does have blues in it. It’s not blues form, but those phrases are definitely connected with my early childhood and blues music and church music.”
Smith grew up in Leland, Mississippi, where he became steeped in the Delta blues and took up the trumpet, later playing in the U.S. Military Band program at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In the 1960s, he became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the pioneering Chicago avant-garde jazz collective, and a decade later, studied ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, where he absorbed influences from Africa and Asia. Smith has led numerous ensembles, some featuring jazz greats, and has taught music at Bard College and Cal Arts. In the 1980s he became a Rastafarian and began using the name Wadada.
Though he has produced string quartets regularly since the mid-’60s, his interest in the medium appears to have grown after he was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Ten Freedom Summers, a five-hour meditation on the Civil Rights movement (the RedKoral Quartet among the performers).
An Open-Minded Approach
RedKoral violinist Shalini Vijayan advises performers to bring an open mind to Smith’s scores, which are rooted in a method Smith calls Ankhrasmation. “Be open to a very different way of approaching music and notation,” she says of the idiosyncratic, graphic scores, which can resemble colorful flow charts. Internal repeat structures invite performers to embellish or re-voice lines or chords. Some passages allow for a kind of free improvisation.
“We talk through every page, and we have a planned-out structure for every performance,” Vijayan says. “One performance of the Third String Quartet can be one way and three weeks later we can decide right before the concert to do it very differently. Having that kind of flexibility and openness is really crucial to playing his music.”
The Chicago-based Spektral Quartet has performed the String Quartet No. 9. Doyle Armbrust, its violist, notes how rhythmic relationships between instruments are conveyed spatially on the page, without time signatures or tempo markings. “Wadada’s music is extremely visual, both conceptually and literally,” he says. “He presents very specific ideas, but leaves wide expanses for the players to express their interpretation of those ideas.”
He adds, “We had some nerves around playing a painting, but it became clear over time that it was up to us to organize sounds in the way that made sense to us, inspired by his colors and forms.”
Both Armbrust and Vijayan agree that it would be difficult to perform Smith’s music without close consultation with the composer, a point underscored by Jay Campbell, cellist of the JACK Quartet. “It’s kind of like in Baroque music where, when you take a repeat, you are encouraged to ornament and show your own take on what was going on,” he says, referring to the String Quartet No. 13. “On the repeats you can do all kinds of things, like wildly change the octave, the dynamics, how forcefully you’re bowing. The score is really a jumping-off point toward actually listening in the space with these other people.”
Savoring the Freedom
These spontaneous elements are particularly satisfying for performers not versed in jazz improvisation. “I’m not trained to play over changes in any kind of meaningful way,” says Vijayan, “but I find an incredible freedom in being able to improvise in Wadada’s music. That’s one of the things that I love the most about it.”
While string players tend to focus on matters of technical execution, Smith is most effusive when discussing his influences, such as the portraits of blues singer Ma Rainey and contralto Marian Anderson in his String Quartet No. 9. “I was drawing on her singing,” he says of Anderson. “Her voice is very beautiful. It’s not a high voice. It’s not a low voice. It’s that mid-range resonance that I was looking for, and that’s why I chose the viola to express it.”
Similarly, Smith cites moments in the String Quartet No. 10 that evoke Angela Davis, the philosopher and Black liberation activist. “Angela Davis was a powerful figure that was suppressed but stayed relevant as an activist,” he says. “She came out of the ’60s and that’s why you have that dance figure in the viola and cello. And that figure in the viola—dee-do-dah, dee-do-dah—that’s all blues. Then, I wanted to show how she thinks, and all of those abstract moments are about that. Then, at the end, there appears this long, lyrical, floating line, which for me kind of references her beauty, because she is a beautiful lady.”
Not every critic has warmed to Smith’s string writing, especially in the earlier quartets, which explore the grittier confines of modernist dissonance. “The work is dense, tense, often grim, atonal to a fault,” stated a 1998 Los Angeles Times review of the String Quartet No. 3.
But other critics have been far more receptive and Vijayan dismisses the occasional negative appraisals. “I’ve played stuff that I feel is a lot more discordant and dissonant than his music,” she says. “Listen to Angela Davis, because that one is quite tonal. Actually, very often he gives us some beautiful chords to sink into and we get the freedom to hold them for a really long time and enjoy them.” And Vijayan hears a growth in Smith’s language, noting how String Quartet No. 16 incorporates two pianos, drums, and Smith on trumpet.
Recordings of the next five string quartets are planned for next year. Meanwhile, Smith invites more ensembles to explore his catalog, which is available on his website. “If they take just a tiny bit of courage they will never be intimidated,” he says. “Whoever plays it has the right to shape it into a new work with the same possibilities that the first ensemble had. It would be just another beautiful point of view on that same piece.”