Making the Music Yours!—Constructing the Maze

Dr. Tyshawn Sorey

The Recording, "Sound," and the Advent of "Little Instruments"

In 1966, Roscoe Mitchell began to present large-scale compositions that would later become major AACM works. One of which was the twenty-one-minute composition, “Sound,” featured on Mitchell’s album of the same name. In Mitchell’s words, the composition “deals, like I say, with sound, and the musicians are free to make any sound they think will do, any sound that they hear at a particular time. That could be like somebody who felt like stomping on the floor . . . well, he would stomp on the floor.”

Performed by a sextet assembled by Mitchell, and comprised of AACM members, “Sound,” while maintaining a high degree of spontaneity and many pointillist moments, also evokes the feeling of meditation—rather than simply a passive listening/playing experience. Mitchell and the members of his sextet perform on their primary instruments. Moreover, the group participates in the minimal use of what would later become known as “little instruments” (e.g., the trumpeter Lester Bowie also performs on harmonica while other sextet members perform on small bicycle bells and the like).

Shortly after the formation of the AACM, “little instruments” began making their way into AACM ensembles more regularly. Bassist and composer Malachi Favors has been noted among several early AACM colleagues as being the first person to start thinking about incorporating small instruments and found objects as a part of his bass setup. Other instrumentalists in the AACM soon thereafter followed suit. In a recent telephone conversation, I had asked Mitchell how this practice began to take form and he remembers: 

Around 1967 or so I had a quartet that included Lester Bowie, Malachi, Phillip Wilson (drummer) and myself, and then Phillip left to go and play with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And at that point, we never really went out looking for drummers to replace him—we just kept rehearsing our music.

Favors affirms his contributions to what then became the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. When asked by music journalist Ted Panken about how he would bring these little instruments into the group, Favors remarked that after having attended an African ballet during the 1950s, he felt that the music he experienced there should be included in jazz. Furthermore—and this is also due in part to Mitchell’s growing curiosity and openness to develop his music far beyond what had been going on in jazz during that time—Favors and other members decided to bring some of these instruments and play them in concert, a practice that continues to the present day. 

The importance of this practice as related to “Sound” and subsequent pieces is that it called for a fresh approach to composition for performers, in that they are required are to think critically and compositionally in establishing their ideas, no matter the level of virtuosity. They had to be very well attuned to the wide-open spatial character that “Sound,” for example, possesses so as to wholly maintain its compositional identity throughout the entire performance. One of the key aspects of why “The Maze” [from L-R-G / The Maze / S II Examples] is successful is Mitchell’s lifelong premise that in order to be a great improviser, you’d have to have some understanding of composition. (It is important to mention here that six of the performers on “The Maze” are also composers.) It should also be noted that the idea of “not following” is one of Mitchell’s cardinal preferences when it comes to spontaneously composing in real time with other musicians, whether they are experienced in it or not; the performers must listen and respond—either in silence or with counterintuitive events—to whatever is taking place in the moment. This line of practice has remained consistent throughout all of Mitchell’s work in both formal and spontaneous fields of composition. In “The Maze,” however, this idea of “matching” (which is notated during the second macro section of the piece) exploits the very fine line between this business of literal “following” in improvised contexts—and the two behaviors are often confused. Roscoe continues: 

I found that a lot of times in improvisation, a lot of people don’t really know what to do. Especially inexperienced improvisers, who always tend to make the same mistakes. That became a problem for me. I figured that I would have to try and find a way to give the musician some information to play but to treat it in a way like in improvisation. That solves the problem . . . so, then, each time it’s different. And doing it this way makes it so that the musicians don’t get up there and follow each other behind the music. This helps to build upon the concentration and focus that you will need [in order] to play this music.

Assemblage, and the formation of The Art Ensemble of Chicago

I would like to briefly make the connection with what had been taking place in the black visual art world in Los Angeles during the 1960s, as I feel that there is a direct correlation with the work of the AACM. Let me start by stating that I also view “The Maze” as a piece of music for percussion ensemble that essentially makes a visual statement in a number of ways when all of the instruments are set up. I say that because it is essentially a labyrinth that one goes to where you can create all of these different sounds in one large sonic complex. And regarding the spatial aspect of the piece, when it’s really spread out, one gets the sense that the sounds are moving through the space, becoming almost like a stereophonic effect. 

By drawing a link between the Black Arts Movement and the activity in the AACM (as trombonist, composer and musicologist George Lewis has discussed in his article Expressive Awesomeness), let us consider what had been taking place in the assemblage movement in Los Angeles during the 1960s. The black artists from that movement often created collage structures that involved the use of found objects as a way of asserting their cultural histories. One of the best known artists from that movement, Noah Purifoy, is considered the progenitor of that movement, and his style would involve the transformation of debris and other discarded material into a creative work of art. While this ideal is very similar to what was happening in kinetic art several years before—as well as the work of Cubists, Fluxus artists, and Dadaists—it was also dissimilar to these respective movements in that Purifoy’s work was essentially an affirmation of black cultural nationalism. 

Why do I mention this? It is not widely known that in fact several of these AACM artists, such as Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Muhal Richard Abrams were also painters and performance artists who contributed to the legacy of boundary erosion by integrating dance and theater as part of the work’s whole, which in itself is a real-time assemblage of creative disciplines. Furthermore, the instrumental setups of the Art Ensemble of Chicago can be considered a universe of assemblages, where each ensemble member operates in the group’s musical activities from his own “sound station.” By 1969–1970, each member of the Art Ensemble had accumulated his collection of “little instruments” that they would then use in concerts to exploit a sonic potential that, as Lewis stated, “evoke[s] memories, histories, geographies, and personalities.” We could also infer from the assemblage movement that while the AEC’s interest is in establishing a global aesthetic, the other objective in the work would be to celebrate the legacy of “Great Black Music: from Ancient to the Future”—a slogan that has since remained as part of the ensemble’s legacy to black creative music practice. The co-existence of these various assemblages progresses all the way to the conception of “The Maze,” which is a highly elaborate instantiation of assemblage whereby all the musicians must equally contribute by using all of these instruments (homemade instruments, found objects, etc.) to further solidify the composite reality of the AACM’s performance dynamics. 

By early 1970, the Art Ensemble of Chicago recruited the Rochester NY–born drummer and percussionist Don Moye. Moye was living in Paris around that time and had been inspired by the group so much that he “got hooked on the dream of playing with them . . . [because] the open-ended creative aspect of what they were doing [was] what hooked me.” Moye has remained a member of the ensemble to the present day and would end up being another one of Mitchell’s most important collaborators. Moye’s entry into the ensemble is important to mention: upon joining the Art Ensemble, the amount of instruments that were set up in a musician’s given space had increased exponentially. By this point each ensemble member’s sonic palette would transform into a very large assemblage of musical instruments, percussion instruments, and found objects such as dinner chimes, a balafon, car horns, a doorbell, African log drums, plumbing brass pipes, etc. 

Introduction and Personnel

In light of what we learned so far about Mitchell’s work, “The Maze” is essentially a logical extension of the music that he performed with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other collaborations with like-minded musicians of the AACM up until that point. 

The personnel who participated in the realization of this piece in its two performances are all AACM musicians. Four musicians are of the Art Ensemble of Chicago—Mitchell on his percussion setup, Moye, Jarman, and Favors. Also included in the work are saxophonists Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Douglas Ewart, and drummer-percussionist Thurman Barker. From this list, six of the musicians are not trained percussionists; the six non-
percussionists are more involved with percussion instruments from a purely sonic and melodic standpoint.

What makes the sound world of “The Maze” distinct from twentieth-century music composed up until that point is the addition of homemade instruments invented by the performers themselves. A couple of instruments to note in this family are Braxton’s set of carefully tuned garbage cans and Threadgill’s percussion instrument known as the “Hubkaphone.” Threadgill describes this instrument as:

a set of pitched and unpitched hubcaps. They’re eight hubcaps strung and hung and played in a percussion style. Almost like a large set of vibes or marimba. They lay flat, and they’re all classic hubcaps because that’s the only material that has any kind of a good quality sound. 

Because, you know, everything from the ’60s on is basically trash. In the ’60s, they were still making things in America that were of quality, but by the end of the ’60s, America was on its way downhill in terms of making anything of quality. Radios. Hubcaps. I don’t care what it is. 

By the time Mitchell began working on “The Maze,” it became apparent that the binaries of composer/performer, improviser/composer, Eurocentric/Afrological, performance/virtuosity dynamics, and interpreter/improviser are gravely problematized in the total output of his work. This is evidenced in his growing catalog of works for instrumentations ranging from solo saxophone to orchestra, most of which incorporate various forms of notation and at times do/do not involve improvisation. 

Inspiration for the work's creation and its aesthetic demands on the performer

The inspiration for “The Maze” came from Mitchell’s years in Chicago and going to different performances that featured his collaborators. He would then get together with all of the players individually, write down the list of instruments that they used, and then try to come up with a system for the score so that when he would write a performance indication into the score for a musician, then that musician would already know what Mitchell was asking them to do, or what instrument he wanted the musician to use. 

“The Maze” is perhaps one of the finest examples of Mitchell’s dialogic relationship with form and spontaneity and is a unique work that I feel can certainly be included among manifold major percussion works of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find “The Maze” to be separate and highly distinct from that tradition. First, “The Maze” is not a composition that allows for an improviser-performer to just simply do whatever they want to do without any kind of awareness of the composition’s sonic identity. Rather, the piece explicitly favors an egalitarian aesthetic with respect to composition and improvisation—to “play compositionally in the moment,” so to speak. All performers have prescribed opportunities within the score to explore different sonic areas in their arsenal while they collaboratively interact with notated materials in a way that obliterates the notions regarding what is improvised and what is composed, thus giving the piece its TOTAL meditative character. In advocating this aesthetic from that point of view, Mitchell posits that to play his music properly the performers must “deal with whatever atmosphere the composition sets up [ . . . ] If everybody is trying to constructively build something together, then it works. [E]verybody stimulates each other in this music.”

Notation: individual assemblage grafting as a compositional step

“The Maze” is a composition written for these particular musicians, all of whom are improviser-composers. As Mitchell describes in the liner notes to the recording:

A lot of the sounds I use are special to the individual [ . . . ] getting all this information from these people is like having a bunch of photographs at your disposal, where you can start pasting the photographs together into a collage. I have all these different sounds at my disposal—I can take these information sheets, put them around me, and then start to pick sounds. I know that these are strong sounds; I have almost twenty years’ experience of the people I’ve played with and with the AACM. That’s a whole experience for getting toward types of grounds that I want to cover musically.

Given what we know already of Mitchell’s oeuvre, we are dealing with a composition that not only does away with the separatist (and I might add, essentialist) problems that continue to exist in so-called “new music” (at least when we’re speaking about the ternary concerning improvisation, composition, and performance), but we are looking at a work that deals with the concept of the “individual” as instrument. In this piece, improvisation and composition operate as one and the same. It can be heard as a composition. It can also be heard as an improvisation.

The notation in the score is a little unusual and, in some ways, contradicts with the actual performance of the work. All performers read from the same score, but it’s a little more complex than that. First, let me state that I don’t feel that Mitchell was preoccupied with having the piece performed “correctly” or “precisely” in the Eurocentric sense of such virtuosic principles or performance practices. Each performance of “The Maze” is unique and must have its own life—for it is a living structure. Secondly, there are no time signatures anywhere in the score. Third, the idea of what a “measure” is has been extended to a single page. In other words, contrary to much of Western conceptions on notation, each page is considered a “measure.” (So, when I’m referring to a particular measure during the analysis, I’m specifically referring to the page number indicated in the score.)

Each performer has a sound catalog from which they may use to perform the score. Therefore, the instrument names appear in three forms. The first case is when they appear above notated passages. The second, and more complicated case, is when the instrument appears in brackets, followed by the letter “S,” simply indicating to the performer to make whatever sounds they wish to at that moment, for however long they wish. To complicate matters still, the letters “H” or “L” that precede the instrument name indicate the dynamic level with which the performer is required to improvise. (Interestingly, these do not appear as frequently in the score as a traditionally notated score might.) For Mitchell, having collaborated with these performers collectively for over fifteen years at the time of composing this piece, the indication of dynamics was not necessary—Mitchell trusted the performers’ natural abilities to intuitively and counter-intuitively respond in improvised settings; he understood already that the music would possess a “lived-in” quality. Thus, “The Maze” would serve more as a collective expression of community rather than as a technical exercise.

Rhythmic values, when placed on individual five-line staves, also may or may not be taken into account and are not measured by any tempo indications—notated passages that are written in the score do not have to be performed together, except for in places where vertical “cue points” are positioned in the score and thusly executed by all the performers. Otherwise, the players are allowed to execute their respective passages independently in any tempo that they desire. What this type of indeterminacy in performance determines is the understanding of when a given measure/page begins and how it ends. Even the measure-order is something of consideration prior to any performance. In Mitchell’s typical matter-of-fact demeanor, he recounts:

This is the same thing that happens like in an improvisation. I mean, people are certainly allowed to play their own tempo; they are allowed to rest when they want to, and they are allowed to play when they want to [laughs].

Using measure 11 in “The Maze” as an example, he goes on to explain the indeterminacy of performance:

Let’s just say that, for instance, I wanted to play those twenty notes on page 11 [in the value of] slow whole notes. What this means is that I could be the last person playing that page! I’m not restricted by any tempo for any performance, and I can decide at any moment to keep going. On the recording, I played those notes at a much faster rate, but I didn’t really have to do that. Because doing that changes the shape of everything that is already happening there. That’s why everyone is reading from the same score. Everybody knows that once you cue or start playing, you’re not really “free” but you’re kind of free. If I play these twenty notes in any way I wanted, these folks here—like Henry, Anthony, and Joseph—they’re going to have to figure out a way to get to that fermata together . . . But that’s not going to stop me or anyone else from flowing over that. A different thing that could’ve happened there is that Moye and Malachi’s cue at the end of page 11 could end up as a duo before I bring in page 12.

Pitch is another factor that is treated quite differently and is also something that Mitchell did not preoccupy himself with. All eight musicians on the recording interpret these pitches in various ways. During the first several pages of the score, especially, most pitches written for pitched percussion instruments are adhered to. However, the further the piece goes, the more the players deviate from the idea of performing “absolute pitches” and instead use certain pitches in a particular notated passage as targets or arrival points, evoking the sense of melodic directionality.


In looking at the score—all thirty score pages are performed consecutively—and upon further review of its first recording, the piece is divided into two parts. There is also an inner structure within these two parts where there are three individual sections (indicated by I, II, and III), whereby the third of these sections contains its own sort of micro-structure. Among the ways that “The Maze” really strikes me (beyond how manifold textures within sound-groups are formed) is how Mitchell skillfully deals with the idea of affect and how he complicates the performance process of the piece from a physical, improvisatory, and listening standpoint (which I’ll touch on later). 

The simultaneous sounding of the large swinging bell (hereafter LSB, as played by Mitchell) and the timing bell (hereafter WB, as played by Ewart) functions as a central transitory element for “The Maze,” appearing four times throughout. This sound serves a particular purpose: one may sense this activity as a direct call to
order—bringing the listener to attention in a way that prepares us for a new collection of musical experiences—or this may be viewed as a conclusion of the music heard before. Furthermore, I noticed that whenever this sound occurred, the overall energy shifts to a higher plane. While Mitchell’s “groups of sound” approach is evident in this composition, the way that the players respond to each other becomes closer to the spirit present in a meditative, well thought-out, collective improvisation. Improvisation, here, functions as ritual in that the more you are in a certain space, the more intense the overall experience becomes, and the sense of time is altered. This is especially evident in the third large section of “The Maze.” This could also be viewed as the reason for it being the longest section of the piece, lasting around thirteen minutes.

Section I

After a slow, ritual-like introduction performed by all members except Threadgill, Jarman initiates the beginning of a sound world at the beginning of measure 2 that has a dreamy, meditative effect on the listener and the performers. He begins with an ascending line leading to a minor-second interval. Mitchell joins in—as Jarman concludes his own passage—with a descending melodic figure towards another minor-second (as a way of extending Jarman’s melodic line, but in a different register). Barker (on glockenspiel) begins his melodic phrase directly on Mitchell’s minor second. (There is no cue point written into the score; I am inclined to believe that this was a spontaneous decision given the notation’s unusual flexibility.) Then, a series of ascending gestures on two glockenspiels are performed in the high register as Barker completes his melodic phrase (performed by Mitchell on hard mallets and Braxton on softer mallets). Finally, Barker (now on marimba) abruptly ends this dreamlike affect with a very fast descending line. During this time, the order of events indicated in the score is somewhat flexible, and these events begin and end where they are supposed to (reading from left to right). However, the players start to deviate from this way of reading the score the further we get into
the music.

Moving ahead to measure 3, Favors enters on nipple gong (on the note G, which interestingly fits into the tonal scheme of what is happening in the music at this point). While we return for a moment to the music we’ve just heard, the effect shifts with Moye’s quiet entrance on his set of six gongs. Ewart then strikes a gong at a mezzo forte dynamic level on cue with Moye and Barker (still on glockenspiel) as the music continues to progress, but this time Threadgill begins to “darken up” the texture of the music by softly playing soft cymbal gong hits.

In measure 4, Mitchell abruptly shifts us into an entirely different area with very short, loud punctuations by balafon, bass drum, and chimes. The next series of these sounds are cued by Mitchell (now on dinner chimes and wood desk) and Jarman on tom-tom. At the end of that measure, we return to the quiet activity that we experienced in measures 2–3. But what proceeds to happen in measure 5 is that the music that we heard in measures 2–4 now becomes truncated via the increase in density among the players. This is the first full measure where wood instruments are featured (balafon, three marimbas, and clave sticks) accompanied by Braxton playing a contrasting melodic phrase on tubular bells. The performance aspect of this measure is an anomaly from the rest of the music: although the performance proposition is such that players are free to individually execute their passages at whatever tempo they want simultaneously, it is noted here that Barker (who suggests a tempo) and Threadgill are performing TOGETHER in sync at a tempo of 60 bpm as the others continue to perform at their individual tempi. This is the only time during the piece where more than one performer deals with notated rhythms from a tempo-based perspective.

Measure 6 transports the listener to another metallic sound world. For the first time, we begin to experience elements of improvisation performed in a ceremonial-type fashion by three AEC members (Jarman on a rack of cymbals, Favors on seal horn and tambourine—cued by Braxton’s third sound performed on the sloshing garbage can machine—and finally Mitchell on a set of swinging bells). The metallic instruments are performed at a soft dynamic as Braxton’s sounds on his garbage cans are much louder. This measure attributes a correlation to the AEC’s performance practice, where the performers are now operating independently from each other in an improvisation. Braxton then proceeds to improvise on marimba resonators (what Mitchell calls Marimba Can Machine, or MCM in the score), playing what are referred to as “bubbling sounds” and lighter “pebble sounds” (abbreviated as BS and LPS). Threadgill follows with ascending and descending passages on hackbrett, and Ewart enters with a very brief statement on wooden cowbells (temple blocks) just before Moye and Barker conclude this ceremonial music space with a B-natural octave tremolo. If one were to view the score while listening to the recording, they would naturally expect that Threadgill, Ewart, and Braxton would end this measure together—but this did not happen. 

A unison texture is heard in measure 7. Following this event, the listener will experience the first of the four LSB-WB events in measure 8. This music signals the closing of the first large section of “The Maze,” while at the same time we enter a new sonic zone. This LSB-WB combination initiates a brief passage performed in unison by Braxton and Ewart respectively on tubular bells and hanging bells to further evoke the sense of closure of “The Maze” ’s first macrostructure. 

Section II

Section II is one in which Mitchell’s idea of “groups” is made explicit. This is a part of “The Maze” where the textures become more uniform and “stereophonic” in motion.


Measure 9 begins with a brief fanfare-like gesture featuring bicycle horns performed by Jarman, Moye, and Mitchell as well Favors’ seal horn. A quartet is then featured performing primarily wood instruments (Braxton on washtub, Ewart on bamboo table, and Barker on marimba) with a phrase played by Threadgill on the Hubkaphone. In measure 10, we have departed from playing all notated pitch classes as written particularly in the marimba and glockenspiel passages played by Barker. This activity will continue all the way through the end of the score. Put another way, in measure 10, Barker does not treat pitch as “pitch,” but instead focuses only on the lower pitches in his passage as specific “targets.” As I indicated earlier in this writing, pitch was not something that Mitchell was preoccupied with; the notated melodic passages may be read from a directional point of view or from a range of high
to low. 

Measures 11 and 12 bring us back into a resonant zone—where we are in a predominantly metallic sound world for most of these measures. The rate of activity decreases during Favors’ arrival temple gong, leading us back into a meditative state that features Mitchell playing primarily dome bells and dinner chimes. Threadgill and Braxton join Barker and Mitchell on Hubkaphone and tubular bells respectively. The LSB-WB sonic event returns, but it does not serve the same formal function that it did before. Jarman, Braxton, and Threadgill are asked to match the sound of the large swinging bell on their respective instruments instead. Mitchell begins to perform a very slow, pensive melodic statement on dinner chimes that concludes this “matching/moving” texture.

Measures 13 and 14 contain an otherworldly mix of wood and metallic textures that are operating independently of each other (while Favors spontaneously contributes textures on the zither) before finally dissolving into a quieting performance of gongs by Threadgill, Ewart, Moye, and Favors, who is the last person to finish performing. What is notable in these two measures is that flexibility in interpretation is intensified (e.g. Favors performs his zither passage for a lengthy period before he plays a shorter gesture on two cans). Like the music we experience in measures 7 and 8, measure 15 is also a type of unison texture that is repeated twice, with the sound of Ewart’s doorbell functioning as a first ending. After the reiteration of this texture, the LSB-WB combination is performed as a second ending, and even more importantly, as a transition to the music we’re going to hear in Section III. 

Section III

Here, Mitchell continues to develop his “groups of sounds” concept, but the music becomes a lot more active, explorative, and highly expansive in this section. The duration of this section lasts nearly thirteen minutes, and the element of improvisation plays a dominating role in the music. The interpretive flexibility in the music is exercised to a larger degree here than anywhere else in the piece. All the musicians will extend their moments of spontaneity during this section; the measures become drastically longer in duration (e.g. measure 26 lasts for nearly two minutes). The physical aspect of the music also becomes intensified. The players did not move that much in the preceding sections. By contrast, the performers during Section III will find themselves switching between instruments with increasing frequency—sometimes even within a single measure or a very short passage. Finally, there is a marked contrast of shifting dynamics where there is a juxtaposition of sonic areas that range from the quiet, resonant gong music (like what we heard earlier in the piece) to several high-intensity structures. There are no transitions that lead into these sonic areas. Instead, Mitchell directly takes us into these zones through a series of “jump cuts.” There is also the curious sense of an extended ending (or a false ending) structure that happens three times during the last few minutes of the performance as some of the beginning moments of “The Maze” reappear in very interesting ways that bring us to its conclusion.


Analysis: Shifting of moods and the first false ending
In measures 16 and 17, Mitchell and Jarman perform a sonically active zone that features the use of metallic-sounding bell textures and the dominating, active cowbell sounds performed also by Mitchell and Moye. As the use of metal is primary here, the incorporation of rough-sounding textures performed by Braxton (on garbage cans) appears which moves us into a very compelling duet with Threadgill (on Hubkaphone and plumbing brass materials, respectively). When Favors interjects on the balafon and log drums, he spontaneously executes this material as opposed to playing it in a fixed, measured way. The mood suddenly shifts back in measure 20 to the dream-like character from the beginning of the piece for a moment with Mitchell (on glockenspiel and dinner chimes) accompanied by Favors (various instruments) and Ewart (metallic instruments), suggesting what sounds like a false recapitulation. When Ewart plays a spontaneous short texture on hanging bells, Favors then matches this moving sound with his sloshing balafon sounds in measure 21. The return to glockenspiel at measure 20 can be viewed as a purposeful interruption of the flow in the balafon music that we heard in the previous measure. Two groups of sound are then featured simultaneously: short temple block and cowbell sounds are working concurrently with two elongated melodic passages performed by Barker and Braxton on glockenspiel. As Jarman and Ewart move slowly through their arsensals, an intense texture is quickly performed by Moye and Barker on drum set, which will later serve as a “jump cut” out of this resonant zone, leading us again into a third unison texture like the one in measure 7. I noted this as the first of three false endings, as this texture feels like a more definitive ending compared to that in
measure 7. 


High-intensity structures, jump-cutting, and the second false ending
The first of several high-intensity structures makes its way into the music beginning at measure 24. Favors introduces this structure by playing tambourine at a mf level, but then Moye and Jarman immediately take off and move into this intense zone with three loud conch shell sounds and intense conga drumming along with the events performed by the rest of the ensemble. Moye responds to Jarman’s punctuations in a highly spontaneous fashion. Although he plays the figures as written, he proceeds to do so elaboratively for as long as Jarman continues playing, bringing the music into a higher state of energy. This measure grows in intensity when Mitchell comes in strongly with his glockenspiel figure in the middle of that measure (along with Favors on balafon) followed by a frenetic, virtuosic bicycle horn improvisation performed by Jarman. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell, Ewart, and Moye shift us back into a quieter zone with gongs while the rest of the ensemble is performing as a resonant metallic sound group. Another extended duet between Braxton (back on garbage can machine) and Ewart (on bamboo table and chimes) takes place followed by a very loud unison texture that is repeated four times, with each iteration having a different shape. The Braxton-Ewart duo then returns, but in a more aggressive fashion. Here, Braxton is playing heavy bubbling sounds inside the garbage cans as Ewart is playing his set of fifteen hanging bells very loudly. They perform these contrasting textures in a way that competes with Jarman’s bike horn improvisation before settling down. We experience another “jump-cut” intensity structure that happens at measure 27 and continues to build until it arrives at a sudden ending that features a composed passage for Hubkaphone accompanied by vibes, tubular bells, and Ewart’s hanging bells. The slow, quiet entry of Moye’s gong music sneaks in, giving the feeling that the piece has reached its conclusion. This is the second false ending. Beginning with Threadgill’s Hubkaphone and garbage cans, the ensemble builds for one last time, leading to a very big crescendo that ends with Mitchell’s five-note phrase on the dinner chimes. The LSB-WB combination finally begins at measure 30 as a concluding texture as the group plays a short coda featuring bell-like textures along with gongs to end the piece together.


Legacy of “The Maze”

Many years ago, I saw a picture of “The Maze” while flipping through pages in Lewis’ book, and I became very curious about it. I’ve listened to this piece many times, and I continue to remain in complete awe of not just the music, but the courage and the determination to present such an ambitious work. 

I mentioned earlier that “The Maze” was a work that was an expression of life experiences, a logical extension of the AACM and Art Ensemble of Chicago activities, and an affirmation of mani­fold performance practices taking place in creative Black communities up until the point of composition. Extending beyond these facts, it is a unique sound complex that, when examined carefully, recontextualizes the notion of simply being a musician into a performer of service and ritual who can draw on and experience the spirit of multiple traditions simultaneously. In Lincoln T. Beauchamp’s book, Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future, Jarman observed that, during his time with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the reason they used so many instruments in their concerts was because: 

They were looking for specific sounds to express the music that was flowing through their consciousness. [ . . . ] Also, there was another challenge—to investigate an infinite number of forms. We were not masters of every form, but we certainly had to at least be aware of these forms. [Don] Moye would teach us African rhythms with specific forms. When we worked on it and did it right, you could feel the spirit click in, you could feel the spiritual uplift of the universality of the music. Even if it was a Southeast Asian form, when we got to the right level of that, you could feel the spirit click in.

Similar to the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, “The Maze” moves in and out of particular musical environments in a way that does not interfere with the ensemble’s natural way of being. To date, there are only two concert performances of “The Maze.” Both took place in 1998 and feature the same personnel as the recording. 

In hindsight, I conclude that every performance of the score would be entirely different (as Mitchell intended for it to be), because the general element that contributes to the piece’s success is ALWAYS there, and that is the element of improvisation. Any given performance of “The Maze” will always serve to put experienced and inexperienced improvisers in a state of comfort—that is to say that, while there are composed elements, there also exists the possibility of functioning the way they normally do in an improvisational context. The musicians are creating spontaneously, yes. But they are not left wondering, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” The materials are there for them to play, but they can shape it in their own way. When the performers know exactly what they’re doing in this composition, they are able to project the intent of the piece in a clear and confident manner. The late composer-conductor Butch Morris once exclaimed to me before a performance: “Don’t just play the music on the page. Make it YOURS!” This performative ideal most certainly points to the way “The Maze” was skillfully executed by Mitchell’s percussion ensemble. 

At the same time, I do worry about one thing. Would “The Maze” be just as successful with other performers, given its community-like, “lived in” aesthetic? From a performance angle, my assumption would be yes. But in another sense, I also wonder if it might prove difficult for any given performance of the piece to maintain its sonic identity. Could we identify a completely different performance of “The Maze” on “traditional” percussion instruments and other found objects that are not as specific to different performers?

In my view, a successful realization of the work may require the percussionists to build new instruments. And it may involve the integration of found objects and other foreign elements into their setups that are unique to who they are. (This is something I’ve been long interested in doing.) We would need to build our own Hubkaphones or find good, resonant garbage cans, hackbretts, zithers, and many other kinds of instruments and objects before we could even begin to perform a work like this while maintaining its sonic and structural integrity. On the logistical side of the equation, it might be very difficult to host a performance of the piece, given where things are economically at the present time. Because of its massive setup (each station takes hours to assemble), I think that it would warrant an extended rendition of “The Maze.” It would take lots of planning and work to realize this composition to its fullest potential.

Making the Music Yours!—Constructing the Maze