An Essay about Black February

Here’s a piece on Black February by Jenni Quilter, a novelist, art critic, and lecturer at New York University.

In Black February, Vipal Monga’s music documentary, we watch a lot of musicians watching Lawrence D. Butch Morris. They sit in rehearsal halls, bars and theatres, and as the camera lingers on their faces, we watch their cautious eyes focused on Morris’s signals, the commands that appear deceptively simple: repeat, sustain, develop, memory. Morris has little patience for those who don’t immediately respond or who want to keep the music at a distance. “I’m asking for a human feeling,” he says. In his terms, he wants them to give him content, to which he will give structure, phrases that, with the flick of a wrist, he can loop around and return to, play with, disrupt and return to again. They watch him as carefully as a sportsman watches his opponent, absorbed not in the music so much as him. In this film, all roads lead through Butch.

It’s not easy. There’s a wonderful moment where Morris makes a prediction about the film we’re watching. “Surely on the camera someplace, in all the filming you’ve done,” he tells filmmaker Monga,  “you’ve seen the look in some of those people’s eyes. Some of it comes from fear. Some of it comes from passion, pure expression. It can come from almost anyplace, but there’s fear in some of this footage, I know there’s fear.” Some are made uneasy by the inherently myopic demands of one controlling personality. They are used to that authority being distributed — between the composer, the conductor, between the predetermined balances of tonality in an orchestral context — but the irony of this improvisation is that Morris’s authority shimmers through this film like a heat wave.

Yet every so often, we see that any fear here is a prelude to real reward. This is, as Morris insists, a dialogue; even with all those eyes on Butch, we also see the rare answering smile on his face, the slight nod that isn’t just him keeping time. We see he relishes the trust his musicians give him, is keenly thankful for it. “Give me something bad,” he asks of his musicians before the final performance. “Kill me.” He is passionately invested in pushing the boundaries of music; in understanding, at an essential level, what it means to respond. In this film, music is understood as earnest evolution rather than any kind of recursive postmodernism. “What is this balance between improvisation, intuition and notation?” Morris asks. “What does this mean?” This film is a record of that debate, and Monga reveals the beauty of this ongoing negotiation without trying to resolve it.

-Jenni Quilter

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