Henry Threadgill’s Musical Spring Is Varied and Extreme. Like He Is. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has released a memoir, “Easily Slip Into Another World,” and a new album, “The Other One.”
By Seth Colter Walls
May 28, 2023, 2:11 p.m. ET
Even as a child, Henry Threadgill liked to experiment.
In this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist’s new memoir, “Easily Slip Into Another World,” he recounts a youthful attempt to fly from a window using a “contraption” of his own devising.
He managed to escape the ensuing, predictable crash without breaking any bones, but the young Threadgill did earn a reputation for daring in his Chicago neighborhood. His mother’s response — “Henry, why do you have to be so extreme?” — became, as he writes, “the refrain of my childhood.”
That same question may have occurred to a few listeners. But Threadgill, 79, has done plenty of soaring, on stages, over the years: composing music intended for social dancing, and pieces for orchestra and string quartet in which players are encouraged to improvise. He has also led some of the most widely acclaimed ensembles in the past half-century of American jazz.
Appropriately, he has an interdisciplinary spirit. In addition to his book — written with Brent Hayes Edwards and published by Knopf earlier this month — Threadgill is engaged in a flurry of additional artistic activity, including a new album, “The Other One,” out on Pi Recordings.
Scored for a 12-piece ensemble and recorded live at Roulette last year, Threadgill’s chamber music on this release impressed me immediately, as I wrote when it was performed. Those concerts also featured multimedia elements, which Threadgill incorporated into a documentary film that provides a fuller look at the material. That movie, which he produced and edited with D. Carlton Bright, screened at the Museum of Modern Art in late May.
Both the show and the film helped Threadgill scratch a long-held creative itch. In a recent interview, he recalled having been impressed by Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu,” which, in an unusual touch for its period, makes dramatic use of a short film at its midpoint. (“That’s one of my favorite operas,” he said. “Love ‘Lulu!’”)
Threadgill said that when he produced the staged version of “The Other One,” he realized: “Now is my chance to integrate art, poetry, photographs — everything — into one piece.”
This can be a lot to keep up with. But as in his childhood, Threadgill comes by his extreme approach to artistic production honestly.
That much was clear earlier this spring when I met him at one of his favorite spots: a combination coffee shop and plant store in the East Village. At one point, as I was peppering him with questions about his mutability, he gestured to consumers throughout the store.
“It has to do with cognition,” he replied. “What do we really see or observe? All these people are different sizes, but it’s the same bone structure.”
Put another way, all his work is connected, even if he’s not going to get into the DNA of it all with you at the drop of a hat. As he writes in his book, “I find that the less I say about my music, the better.” (And at another point: “Music is about listening. Nothing I say can mean anything once you start to listen.”)
Still, a question or two may linger. For example, doesn’t the piano music that kicks off “The Other One” flirt in a surprising way with noirish harmony? And doesn’t that represent something of a break with much of his output this century, which has been conceived outside major/minor composition?
When I brought that up, Threadgill said, with a touch of good-natured evasion: “These tonal centers, they don’t really mean anything. I love harmony and stuff. But it’s kinda like looking at those flowers over there. You keep scanning; you never really stop.”
Fair enough. This piano music — laced as it is with those recognizable tonalities — doesn’t simply resolve there. At the end of that opening section, two saxophones enter with staggered lines that hustle into a more frenetic state of mind. That’s the more recognizable, recent sound world of Threadgill’s music, driven by a quasi-serialized use of intervals, that has most often been performed by his core ensemble, Zooid.
Subsequent sections in “The Other One,” like the track titled “Mvt I, Sections 6A-7A,” sound more like the Zooid recording of “In for a Penny, In for a Pound,” which won Threadgill his Pulitzer.
Still, there’s a sense of that language being developed on the new album, particularly in the music for strings, which is featured during much of “Movement II.” “I’ve been able to expand the language,” Threadgill said. “I have a whole ’nother freedom now, where I’m moving.”
He then leaped from his seat, seeking a piece of paper from the shop’s employees. On the scrap, he began to diagram some of the modernist composer Edgard Varèse’s ideas about flipping musical intervals — an approach he also describes toward the end of “Easily Slip” — and showed how he was building on Varèse’s example in “The Other One.”
After Threadgill filled up the paper with sequences of intervals and melodic phrases — the latter built from a pattern, like Morse Code, of long and short phrases — he moved to toss his notes in the trash.
I stopped him. Preserving Threadgill’s working methods is no small matter. Throughout “Easily Slip,” there are tantalizing references to recordings of vintage orchestral performances that have yet to be made available to the public. Some important collaborations, such as concerts with Cecil Taylor, have not been preserved on fixed media at all.
Threadgill is thinking about fixing some of these problems. One orchestral recording in his possession may eventually see the light of day on a website, currently under construction, called Baker’s Dozen, a portal that he also plans to offer to other artists who have valuable unreleased tapes in their possession. (He mentioned the pioneering Minimalist Terry Riley as someone who might wind up providing material for the site.)
“The Other One” is a majestic addition to Threadgill’s discography, but its film version deserves a wider airing, too. It captures his sense of humor, which tended to emerge during this show whenever he was discussing photographs that he took of possessions abandoned in New York City streets early in the pandemic. He is currently sending the documentary to various festivals, he said, “to see what kind of credits we can pick up.”
Other projects in the works, as ever, seem bound to have an unconventional slant. Threadgill said that he has been impressed by the strides that collaborators and acquaintances like Anthony Davis and Terence Blanchard have had in mainstream opera, a world he says isn’t really for him.
Instead, Threadgill is planning what he called a “corrupted oratorio,” featuring two choirs: “a traditional choir and a gospel choir,” plus piano and organ, and other instruments as it develops. “I don’t like preconceived forms, you know?” he said. “I like to create new forms.”
Henry Threadgill: Other Worlds As experienced in a stunning new memoir and album, the Pulitzer-winning composer strives for the mystery itself over the solution.
June 2, 2023 by Shaun Brady
Reading Henry Threadgill’s new memoir, Easily Slip Into Another World, after decades of listening to his music feels something like meeting a close friend’s family for the first time — seeing their familiar, unique combination of features and mannerisms unraveled and echoed in an array of different faces and bodies.
Learning of the future Pulitzer-winning composer’s excitement at first hearing Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ellington or Howlin’ Wolf; his childhood growing up amidst a family of colorful characters on the South Side of Chicago; his gripping, delirious experiences in Vietnam; the cross-fertilization of ideas with other foundational members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); his experiments with transplanting concepts from ragtime or Varèse or folk traditions encountered on his travels — each story seems to spark a glimmer of recognition somewhere in the dense thicket of Threadgill’s wondrous and utterly singular soundworld.
Not that Threadgill himself, now 79 and long based in New York, would encourage drawing one-to-one comparisons between his memories and his creations. Throughout the book, co-written with Brent Hayes Edwards, he admonishes against such literal readings, saying, “his book is not a listening guide. If anything, it is an extended defiance of that expectation. If it’s meant to teach you anything about my music, it starts with the lesson that you need to relinquish that desire for transparency.”
Much like David Lynch, Threadgill is steadfast in his belief that the value of a mystery lies not in its solution but in the allure of the unknown. From his enigmatic, evocative titles — “Jenkins Boys Again, Wish Somebody Die, It’s Hot,” or “Burnt Til Recognition,” or “To Undertake My Corners Open” — to the way divergent melodies or rhythms seem to circle each other warily before twining into a frenzied dance, Threadgill’s music is playfully, daringly elusive.
“Spooky action at a distance” isn’t the title of a Threadgill composition, though it sounds like one; it’s Albert Einstein’s description of entanglement, the reality-undermining phenomenon in quantum physics whereby two interconnected particles can affect one another instantaneously, even when separated by unfathomable distances. It’s a phrase that comes to mind often in Threadgill’s frequent pairing of instruments, or in the way his bands tend to subdivide into interdependent cells.
His Ensemble Double Up is very much constructed on that foundation, as is the 12-piece ensemble featured on his latest recording, The Other One. The album comprises a three-movement suite, extracted from a multimedia composition performed at Brooklyn’s Roulette Intermedium and dedicated to the late percussionist Milford Graves. The piece can feel like two (or more) distinct trajectories moving in parallel, as if the actual composition is implied in the space in between.
Threadgill conducts The Other One but doesn’t play an instrument; if one were so inclined, it could be referred to as a chamber piece, though it’s far too slippery for such easy categorization. That’s a trait that Threadgill shares with his disparately inventive compatriots in the AACM: Their music ingests genre, style and tradition without revealing the seams between them, or even acknowledging the existence of such distinctions. Theirs is not a fusion that could be tagged with a title like “Third Stream.” The music of Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago better resembles a whirlpool, its touchstones bubbling up and re-submerging in a relentless whorl.
In Easily Slip Into Another World, Threadgill places the emphasis of the AACM on the word “Advancement.” He posits the ways in which the Chicago-based organization has evolved and expanded the boundaries of multiple traditions over the past half-century as a model for reimagining the hidebound classical orchestra: “We need a vision of the American orchestra as a vehicle for advancement on a level that can keep up with the breadth of the American composer’s appetite.”
As he relates in the book, Threadgill has always been, if not quite an inventor, then at least a devoted experimentalist. He recalls being banned from neighbors’ homes after risking life and limb with his attempt at a flying machine or a potentially poisonous concoction that just might yield an invisibility potion. He’s carried that same tinkerer’s curiosity into his musical life, whether cobbling together his hubkaphone — an array of hubcaps inspired by the gong arrays of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines — or dismantling an ensemble just to see how else it might fit together again.
That instinct can be traced all the way back to his first major group, Air, a more seemingly traditional sax-bass-drums trio with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. Rather than the soloist-with-rhythm-section approach of Sonny Rollins’ famed trio, Threadgill saw Air as a vehicle for constant reconfiguration, whether three-pronged interplay, a looking-glass refraction of ragtime, or blues in suspension. “That way of working — putting together whatever you can put together — lies at the heart of Black art,” Threadgill writes. “ltimately the music is that resourcefulness — that impulse to tinker with an art that is provisional, always in the process of finding its form.”
As Threadgill’s creative palette has broadened, his experimentation has progressed from the mechanical to a sweeping elasticity that might best be described as biological. In his longstanding, mutable ensemble Zooid, his work imbibes rough-hewn blues and Ellingtonian elegance, Nino Rota-esque carnivalia and Varèse sound experiments, Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics and swing-era dance rhythms, exhaling it all into something uniquely his own.
Laced through the section of the book recounting his harrowing experience in Vietnam are excerpts from what appears to be a debriefing. Gradually, this text reveals the story of a night on watch, where the saxophonist-turned-infantryman glimpsed a pair of eyes in the darkness. They turn out to be the eyes of a tiger in the jungle, scared off at the last moment, mid-lunge, by a searchlight. The vivid memory lingers throughout the book, a moment of beauty, danger, ferocity and grace that can never quite be reconciled with the placidity of daily life. To anyone who’s delved deeply into the brilliantly disorienting music of Henry Threadgill, the sensation is familiar.