Experimental, avant-garde, outsider: These are rubrics we use to define the wild fringes of the art establishment. But they can be just as elite as the academy they revolve around—an outside that becomes a different kind of inside. Those unfamiliar with the hermetic rituals and internal hierarchies of either sphere can feel unwelcome in both.
Opening up experimental art to everyone has been percussionist and improv-director Shannon Morrow's great gift to the Triangle. In the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra and the marching band Scene of the Crime Rovers, and as a deep listening teacher, rhythm facilitator and Scrap Exchange outreach coordinator, Morrow privileges inclusion over exclusion. Her own joy in discovering the freedom of out music never ossified into snobbery, and she continues to spread her art-is-for-everyone message with missionary zeal.
One of Morrow's early bands was Special Agents of Her Majesty's Secret Cervix, an art-rock trio that included longtime Triangle musician Anne Gomez. "I have to thank Anne for helping me leave the boundaries of traditional rock," she says. "Some of our earliest experiments were together and they continue to be together." Someone played an Art Bears record for Morrow at a Secret Cervix recording session, which was an epiphany for her: "I realized there was so much more [than rock]," she recalls.
Morrow left her native Winston-Salem to attend East Carolina University, where she earned a B.F.A. in visual art. In 1999, she moved to improv-hotbed Chicago to pursue a B.A. in percussion performance at Northeastern Illinois University. She didn't complete the highly traditional program. "There was no room for creativity," she explains, "and it was just killing my soul." But she would find an invaluable education in the clubs of Chicago.
The first jazz club she attended there was the storied Velvet Lounge, where she saw the great free-music drummer Hamid Drake perform. "My jaw just hit the floor," she remembers. "I actually looked him up in the phone book and called him and told him I wanted to take drum lessons from him. Meeting him opened up a lot for me. There are all these big names in Chicago who you could see for three dollars, as they essentially practiced in a venue. They're friendly, they'll help you, and they're willing to play with less experienced people." It isn't hard to see how this gregarious, inclusive culture shaped Morrow's worldview.
Morrow had several rock-oriented projects in Chicago, including Bride of No No and a Stooges cover band featuring drums, trombone and tuba. She was sitting in on improv nights at various venues. And perhaps most importantly, she joined Fred Lonberg-Holm's Lightbox Orchestra, in which musicians were directed by handwritten signs and lighting cues, foreshadowing her own improv-direction work with the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra. This was but one strand of the braid of interests that would inform Morrow's practice.
Another is the theory of "deep listening" pioneered by composer Pauline Oliveros, which, after a four-year battery of retreats and workshops, Morrow is officially certified to teach. She admired Oliveros' dedication to audience-inclusion and accessibility in the avant-garde. "That's so smart," she enthuses. "If you consider yourself an 'experimental' artist and you promote your music that way, who's going to come see it? The same five people every time."
Deep listening resembles a meditative practice. It entails listening as an active rather than a passive process, an attempt to hear "the whole of the space-time continuum and listen within yourself." Morrow met Sarah Weaver, the director of Chicago's Weave Soundpainting Orchestra, through the deep listening program. It was with this group that she began to learn the soundpainting sign language developed by composer Walter Thompson, a repertoire of hand gestures used to direct large groups in structured improv.
Morrow moved back to North Carolina in 2006, and in 2007, she founded her own Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra, where she is now one of three directors. She knows about 75 of the roughly 800 signs in the always-evolving language. "I could say," Morrow explains, gesturing with her hands, "winds one, low long tone with low volume. Or vocalist one, wind sounds with modulations. Some soundpainters want really tight control, but I don't use it that way. I want the players to organically develop their ideas; it's my job to step in when things are losing energy and shift them."
The Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra often plays outside of traditional venues, as does Scene of the Crime Rovers, the guerilla marching band Morrow founded in 2006. "Only certain kinds of people are going to come into the music club," says Morrow, "and if you want to get the music to the others, you have to take it to them." SOC. Rovers has an official partnership with The Scrap Exchange, a Durham-based nonprofit that salvages 300 tons of industrial discards for sale and creative reuse per year, where Morrow works as the outreach coordinator. SOC Rovers gets to use Scrap Exchange space to practice in exchange for providing entertainment for six Scrap Exchange events per year. SOC Rovers and the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra will perform together (the latter in collaboration with A/V artist Jim Kellough) as part of the Third Friday Durham series at the CCB Plaza on July 18.
The breadth of Morrow's activity is such that it's difficult to summarize: Besides all this, she plays in rock-oriented bands Felix Obelix and Gates of Beauty, as well as structured improv trio Mahasamatman with Chuck Johnson (a fellow deep listener) and Chris Eubank. But of all her activities, Morrow describes her role as "rhythm facilitator" at Durham's Music Explorium as the love of her life, and her aim in that role—to maintain a space where people feel free to discover their innate rhythm, breaking down the artist/ spectator divide and restoring to music its ancient, communal function—seems like the purest distillation of what she does. (Morrow will host a free community rhythm circle, again at CCB Plaza, on July 26, from 7-8:30 p.m.) "My main interest," she says, "in SOC Rovers, Soundpainting, rhythm circles, everything, is relationships and creativity and ways to get big groups to work together and have freedom and express themselves." In her dedication to this cause, Morrow proves that artists can press their talents into the service of something bigger, more collective and more spiritually enriching than the stature of their own name.