Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith Explains His Colorful, Abstract Musical Notation

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Trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.  (CalArts School of Music faculty Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. )

All musicians use some technique to get the music in their head onto the page. Most use modern notation, with the standard five line staff. China’s notation system uses numbers instead of round notes. Country musicians might use the simplified, chord-centric Nashville number system.

Trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith felt constrained by the notation methods he encountered. So he developed his own.

Smith, 74, calls his method Ankhrasmation, a term created from the “Ankh,” the Egyptian symbol for life; “Ras,” the Ethiopian word for leader; and “Ma”, for mother. Ankhrasmation combines symbols, colors and lines to illustrate Smith’s abstract, ambitious jazz. The result, on exhibition Dec. 14 at the Kadist, looks like something you’d find in your Abstract Art for Dummies book. But Smith is adamant that it's not simply a visual score. He also chafes when I ask if it’s a framework for improvisation. So what is it?

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Cosmic Music"
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Cosmic Music" (Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith)

“The easiest way to think about it is that scores are constructed in a way that can be used to produce music, but the music itself is not on the score,” Smith says. “The score is this doorway where you become aware of elements like structure, shapes, color and [the] connection of those shapes and colors and lines and dots. You have to transform that into some kind of reference, [and] then you’re able to actually get to the music.”

Ankhrasmation’s combination of creativity and structure has underpinned Smith’s long, impressive career. He grew up playing Delta blues in Mississippi, and in the sixties, he became a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which helped shape the sound of modern and avant-garde jazz. (Initially, it was rough going: elders hazed Smith by talking through his initial performance). There, he honed his style of expressive, boundary-pushing free jazz, which has now appeared on the more than 50 albums he’s released. As he got older, he became a Rastafarian, adding Wadada to his name, and then converted to Islam, adding Ishmael. He started racking up awards, becoming a Guggenheim Fellow in 2009 and a 2013 Pulitzer finalist for his album about the civil rights movement, Ten Freedom Summers.

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Sarhanna."
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Pacifica." (Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith)

He started creating Ankhrasmation in 1967. To him, none of the traditional notation styles incorporated the musician’s life -- their internal experiences, emotions and references -- so he started researching, digging through other musician’s scores and music history books. He came up with the building blocks of Ankhrasmation, a series of units which includes rhythm-units, improvisation-units, and velocity units, which dictate the speed of a piece. Musicians study an Ankhrasmation piece and determine for themselves what the colors and symbols -- things like eyes, boats and pyramids -- mean to them personally, and then bring that knowledge with them to a performance.


Over the years, Smith taught Ankhrasmation to other musicians, his students at Cal Arts (where he was a professor until 2013), and to the members of his ensembles. It can be slow going, he admits. But it’s a way for the members of his groups -- he’s currently the bandleader of five -- to add their personality and experiences into a piece, rather than the music serving as Smith’s solitary vision. When musicians research the piece and form their interpretation, they’re instructed to not share it with the rest of the group, which Smith believes dilutes the experience.

“It's like cooking some rice,” he says. “You put five to six kinds of rices in there, after a while none of the rices have any identity. That research makes every individual in the circle of that performance unique -- they have something that's going to add to the mosaic construction of this piece.”

Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Sarhanna."
Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith's score for "Sarhanna." (Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith)

About a decade ago, people approached Smith about showing his scores in museums. He agreed, but quickly grew disenchanted with the way they were lumped in with other visual scores. He held back on showing them until a few years ago, when he worked with museums like UCLA’s Hammer Museum and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to show it them in their proper context. On Dec. 14, he’ll be introducing an exhibition of his scores at the Kadist in San Francisco, and on Dec. 17, he’ll join a four-person ensemble for a performance of his Four Symphonies. The group hasn’t played it before, and the day before, they’ll play through its Ankhrasmation score, which resembles the sun.

Smith says ideally, visitors who see his scores in museums would also hear the scores they’re looking at. He wants people to experience the translation of Ankhrasmation to music, and to think about their interpretation of a piece’s colors and flourishes as they listen. But he insists that you don’t have to be a musician, let alone an expert in avant-garde jazz, to get something from Ankhrasmation.

“The biggest lesson from this is whatever your dreams are, like Bob Marley said a long time ago, make them happen,” he says. “Although the people viewing it don’t have the key or the skills of materializing [it] as a piece of music, it still makes perfectly normal sense to think about a score as a creation. And therefore when we witness it, or become connected with it as viewers, it also does something for us.”


The exhibition of Smith's scores takes place Wednesday, Dec. 14, at The Kadist, from 6-8pm. Free. On Dec. 17, Smith performs at The Lab. Tickets $20, available online.