At the Edge of Two Worlds: Chris Williams
By Nala Duma
Friday, November 3, 2023
The year is 2019.
It's Chris Williams’s final day in his Los Angeles apartment. He’s packed up his room, save for an SM57 microphone on a music stand. From the next room over, his roommate Livingston “Liv” Matthews approaches.
I like to think Liv had his ear pressed to Williams’s wall for the year they lived together—in reverent attendance of his roommate’s trumpet rehearsals. I like to think he came to know Williams’s style better than anyone. Liv would concede that his roommate is no Miles Davis. Rather, Williams croons, croaks, keens, and careens horn notes in a manner that evokes trumpeter Don Cherry.
Fleshly. Gular. And flawfully human.
It’s a style fit for a free jazz, punk, and hip-hop project that Liv is recording under the name Pink Siifu. Knowing Williams’s departure is imminent, Liv has two requests for his roommate: 1. record trumpet for the album and 2. “Fucking go crazy.”
Williams does. And then months pass. And then the whole world is rocked to somnambulance by a global pandemic. And then, like a prophetic dream of the summer riots to come, Liv’s album NEGRO emerges in the sleepy stasis of April, and Williams is all over it.
Hitting play on NEGRO is like opening a half-hinged door to a barnful of screaming. A quick survey of the stereo field reveals captive elephants, carrion flies, and a crazed circus band hovering by the intimated carnage—all at once, all cast from the Armageddon bell of Williams’s trumpet. Then there are NEGRO’s softer moments, such as the brassy fog Williams diffuses upon “we need mo color.” Liv and co. use tape delays to oxidize Williams’s trumpet lines to decadence. The result is a desolate soundfield that recalls ambient composer William Basinki’s Disintegration Loops. It’s woeful and withering.
Williams ached for this range of play while living in L.A. Since the age of 15, he’s been obsessed with producing the strangest sounds possible from his trumpet.
“I was [in L.A.] 2016 through 2019. It was hard to find my people,” he explains. At present, he’s cloistered off in an old hotel in downtown L.A. Hints of classical decor peek out from the corners of his Zoom window: mostly, tall swag curtains framing his n-th story view like filigree. He’s returned to the city to rehearse for a “multi-genre ritual” performance titled Sans Soleil at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT).
“I feed off of collaborative energy, and I couldn’t find a lot of collaborators that were willing to make a lot of space and time or go for something deeper than ‘Let’s just get together and play.”
So, he sought dwelling in New York, but the move would prove an irony.
Three weeks into his new city tenure, New York shut down due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
“I didn’t get what I wanted or my idea of what I wanted, but then I got to be a part of the awakening of New York. Musically, I slowed down. Maybe [it was] the opportunity for introspection [or] the way the world shift[ed]. There were many different versions of anxiety happening, but I didn’t have the same anxiety related to my art-making practice. It allowed me to reacquaint myself with myself.”
There is a term in Japanese for the nonspace Williams began to occupy: ma. Or, what architect and theorist Arata Isozaki once described as “an aesthetic quality which occurs at the edge of where two separate worlds meet.” Ma is “complete silence” as “extravagance.”
In the extravagant silence of a world at an impasse, Williams wholly imbibed his landscapes. What poured out of him was ambient music.
Ambient music betrays almost every technical logic of horn-playing. The trumpet is “a breath-based instrument,” Williams explains. “You can’t hold a note forever.” You also can only play one note at a time. Nonetheless, these challenges stirred Williams. He began to consider how to “expand the sound [of a trumpet] to be something bigger and with more depth…more width.”
It would take electricity.
“...Williams has tenderly cultivated his artistry. He reaps virtuosity from the fecund space between worlds. Between tradition and futurity. Standards and experimentalism. The acoustic and the electric. The human and the world.”
Williams began accumulating effects pedals and delving further into softwares such as Ableton and MaxMSP with an emphasis on synthesis. A newfound collaborator named Lester St. Louis—a cellist—encouraged this foray into electronics. Together, Williams and Louis formed HxH, an improvisational electroacoustic duo.
“A lot of my role [in HxH] is about time compression. How can I present things from 100 years ago through my sampler and in a way that’s giving energy to the musical moment that’s happening now? How can I look to the future and bring some of that back into this performance?”
Last June, HxH performed an improvisation at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn. The piece features Williams and Louis stationed at two tables mounted with controllers and samplers, shrouded almost entirely in darkness. For the first half of the performance, Williams and Louis trigger and modulate synth pads, drones, static noise, and sound bites. The emulsified score evokes a spaceship gearing up for intergalactic flight. Louis mixes breakbeats into the composition as Williams sounds off into the reverberant hall of the theater. Looped via effects unit, the brass notes begin to cascade and accumulate, like electroplasma in the ship engine.
The spacecraft gains momentum. Louis’s kick drum patterns crumble into crackling artifacts.
Smoke. Embers. Lightspeed.
The spaceship takes off.
This is home for Williams. Collaboration permits a total immersion into the live music experience, which is a collective experience. However, collaboration is also a shared shell. The self-proclaimed introvert explains that he’s working on bringing “the same joy” that he gets from “feeding off other people’s immediate energy and creative impulse…into [his] own practice” by “allowing [him]self to be vulnerable.”
It’s a surprising admission. Onstage, Williams appears tall, cool, and replete in presence. The admission leads me to believe that there are two kinds of introverts: the kind whose reserve casts chasms of austerity between the self and the other and the kind whose reserve masks a well of activity beneath, luring the other to approach, gaze upon, and reflect.
Williams is the latter kind.
And I like to think this well of activity, which attracted Liv, also attracted Williams’s current mentor: Bennie Maupin.
“I’m so glad you brought him up because I did want to talk about him a little bit.”
Williams’s eyes light up when he begins to talk about his mentor. The pair met at CalArts where Williams was pursuing his Master’s degree. Maupin—whose credits include collaborations with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Lee Morgan—“saw something that needed to be nurtured” in Williams, “something that needed to incubate.” The mentor soon invited Williams into his band, pushing his mentee to learn a breadth of difficult material.
“I played a lot of music with him that really pushed me to figure out what I am in relation to this music,” Williams recalls. “He never told me what I was doing right or wrong.”
First, Maupin pushed Williams toward traditional trumpet virtuosity. Then, a year into the mentorship, Maupin, like so many others, was called to Williams’s well.
“He started to realize that I was on a different path,” Williams explains. Maupin, having worked with Herbie Hancock—who “was the cutting edge of synthesizers” in the early 1970s—encouraged his mentee to bring his guitar pedals into the fold of his band. And with time, Williams grew more confident in his own virtuosity.
“He understood that I needed to answer all these questions for myself. But he was just happy to guide me to the questions that I needed to find.”
In the years since Maupin and Williams’s fateful meeting, the mentee tenderly cultivated his artistry. From the fecund space between worlds, he reaps his sound: between tradition and futurity. Standards and experimentalism. The acoustic and the electric. The human and the World.
He is the gravitational locus of these realms.
“Jazz offers, in a lot of ways, the most freedom when you recognize what it is. That creative Black Spirit is ever-expanding. It doesn’t have limits. The only limit is the direction you wanna go.”
May Chris Williams be a steward.
About Nala Duma
Nala Duma is a musician, choreographer, and writer whose critical lens on popular culture and contemporary music takes up Blackness as the break that might rupture our attachments to Worlds, territories, and Man.