Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 1

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid group has made some really interesting recent music in an original musical language, but I’ve seen very little discussion of what the language is, and Threadgill himself doesn’t seem to be very forthcoming. The best description I’ve found comes from guitarist Liberty Ellman in a phone conversation with Nate Chinen, but there’s still not enough detail for me to reverse-engineer it. A diagram would probably clear it all up, but it’s hard to provide a diagram over the phone!

So I started transcribing a piece to see if I could start to make some sense of it. I chose “To Undertake My Corners Open” (YouTube link) from This Brings Us To, volume 1. It’s pretty gnarly stuff, so I’m pausing a couple of minutes in to report my findings so far. If I waited until I finished the whole thing, it would be a really long time before I wrote anything, plus I would have a novel’s worth of things to say about it; this way I can write as I go, and maybe even get some feedback.

I’ve transcribed the “head” as well as the first “chorus” of the trombone solo (his solo lasts just under three cycles of a repeating bass progression). The score so far is below but it’s probably handier to look at the PDF.


To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 1

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 2

To Undertake My Corners Open, p. 3


Caveats: I have a pretty good ear, but this stuff is hard! It’s not particularly tonal and there are two “analog-pitch” instruments (trombone and bass). Meanwhile the guitar has nice discrete pitches but is hard to hear behind the other instruments.

The beat can be hard to identify; Threadgill tends to deliberately avoid obvious downbeats, aiming for a more homogenous pulse. I tried to switch meter only when I really had to.

I should mention that I use the fabulous Transcribe! program, and there’s no way I could have gotten remotely close to this amount of detail without it.

Does the opening phrase of the trombone remind any one else of the beginning of Berg’s Lyric Suite? Probably a coincidence, but I get the impression that Threadgill knows twelve-tone history.

I’ll come back to the head, which seems pretty through-composed, in a minute, but moving ahead to the trombone solo (the bass cycle starts at m. 18): one thing that surprised me when transcribing is that it’s a lot more normal than it sounds at first. The trombone is following the bass progression very faithfully, and even navigates it in a quite tonal manner, measures 21-27 being the clearest example. It’s mostly the guitar that colors the harmonies in an interesting and dissonant way. The thing I’m most interested to find out next is whether the guitar part’s structure is more vertical (choosing notes each measure from a harmony relative to the bass) or horizontal (charting an independent path that creates interesting harmonies by chance). Ellman’s comments give the impression that it might be the latter. Once I finish the next two choruses of this solo, I’ll have a better impression of what is consistent each time around, which will help illuminate the structure behind it.

Here’s the bass structure of the trombone solo. Like I said, it repeats three times, starting at m. 18. (I get the sense that it changes for the following guitar solo, but I haven’t listened closely yet.)


Trombone solo structure


I said I would get back to the head later, and here’s why: the structure of the head is basically exactly the same but twice as fast! Even the lead-in, not pictured above, corresponds: m. 2 is mm. 16-17 at double speed.

The intro goes through one of the two G♭­-D♭­-C-B♭­-F cycles, skips the second one, takes a weird repeated 7/4 break that could be related to the 5/4 D♭­-C measure, then meets up again with the E and corresponds perfectly the rest of the way. That’s the most interesting tidbit I’ve found so far, and something I never would have noticed without writing it all out.

Note by the way that the repeated guitar figure in that 7/4 section is almost palindromic.

That’s about all I have for now. Open questions:

  • What’s the structure behind the guitar lines underneath the trombone solo? Whatever it is, it seems to be changing at about the same rate as the bass progression.
  • Are there any particular harmonic or melodic rules behind the through-composed head? Nothing has leaped out at me so far, but I haven’t looked very hard.

More later, I hope.

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9 Responses to “Henry Threadgill, “To Undertake My Corners Open”, part 1”

  1. Mark M. says:

    Wow, thanks so much for posting this! I have been enamored of Zooid ever since I first heard them live in Chicago, but their harmonic language has always remained obscure to me. I could be wrong, but Threadgill’s system sounds a bit similar to Steve Coleman’s cell notation, but with a greater emphasis on counterpoint. I’m eagerly awaiting the follow-up post, and, in the mean time, I’ll check out the rest of this wonderful blog of yours.

  2. Mark M. says:

    (Also, you noted the palindromic nature of Ellman’s 7/4 figure. I know that the Schillinger method produces symmetrical melodies… Could it be that Threadgill is using some variation of Schillinger’s system? I know that fellow AACM-er Abrams has used that system to great effect.)

  3. dfan says:

    Thanks for your interest! I just looked up Coleman’s page on cell notation and it seems to be basically “just” a more precise notation for chords (or transposable collections of pitches in general) and doesn’t imply any particular sort of process with them (e.g., he presents a “traditional” song in both chord-based and cell-based notation). It sounds like that notation is a good way to express the data used in Threadgill’s system, though, so the scores may use it or something like it.

    I’m working on the second “chorus” of the trombone solo now, and there’s definitely a correlation between the guitar comping in this one and the previous one. Sometimes they’re off by a semitone, which makes me suspicious about my transcribing – some double-checking is in order. There’s one more chorus coming up, so maybe I can use that to break ties…

    The little I know about Schillinger just comes from the classical direction, where he seems to have been regarded as somewhat of a crank. It’s been interesting to find out that he’s been more influential in the jazz field.

  4. Sen says:

    Thanks this is an interesting piece , f….. me you do have good ears ) its made me go back and listen to the piece in a new way.

    I’ve read back some interviews, Threadgill has talked about his intervallic system : is it possible to predict or say where the interval sets are changing and how often ? Listening to Zooid the music seems so seamless its hard to know, but from the solos there’s a definite logic. I look forward to more from your work.

  5. dfan says:

    Since it’s been a while since this post I’ll take the opportunity to give an update that I’m up to the 8:00 mark (out of 8:40); I just haven’t posted any work in progress since. A lot of it was tougher than expected due to intonation issues. Lots of interesting stuff to report once I finish!

  6. Mark says:

    Hey there,

    I should mention that I’m a totally different Mark M….but super awesome work so far…I was wondering did you ever get any farther? I’d love to hear someone theorize a bit about what Mr. Ellman is up to in this context (horizontal vs. vertical). Sometimes to me it sounds as “simple” as him being someone that’s listened to a lot of M-Base-associated soloists like Coleman, Osby and Gary Thomas. And then he’ll do something utterly and structurally odd that connects explicitly to something else in the music…it’s all so nicely mysterious, I’m a little afraid that figuring it out will ruin that (;->).

  7. Mark says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this, at 3:43 there’s a very interesting shot of the score they’re playing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zicVznvQBT0

  8. dfan says:

    I’m still mere measures from the end, and have been for months, but the intonation issues have really gotten me down. If the flute is 30 cents sharp and the bass is 30 cents flat (say), then my attempts to transcribe both pitch and intervals accurately are kind of dead in the water. I’ll try to just soldier through, get all the notes down, maybe do one cleanup pass, then throw it out there as a baseline for future work. Many thanks for that shot of the score, that’s a really interesting clue!

  9. Sen says:

    Please continue brother Dfan its still value-able work, I hope to see this great effort published soon. I tried using Transcribe but gave up the bass and trombone are so low its mush.

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