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Motivic Transformation in Bill Dixon’s Intents and Purposes

Marc Medwin


When Bill Dixon died on June 16, 2010, less than four months shy of his 85th birthday, he had been experiencing what might be viewed as a renaissance of his recording career. In the previous two years, he had released albums on the Thrill Jockey, AUM Fidelity, and Firehouse 12 labels, and a recording of his orchestral concert at the Victoriaville Jazz Festival was in preparation for release. Since his death, many of his most important albums have been reissued, including Intents and Purposes, the subject of the present study, and those on the Soul Note label in a boxed set. However, while Dixon’s music is more readily available than it had been for many years, scholarly interest in his contributions has remained minimal.

There is a scarcity of published material on Dixon’s music as music. Of the comparatively little work that has been done, the most thorough is, without question, the pioneering studies by Andrew Raffo Dewar. Having performed with Dixon and having had unprecedented access to Dixon’s archives, Dewar’s 2004 master’s thesis is essentially a small monograph concerning all facets of Dixon’s art and its sociological contexts. [1] Six year later, some of these ideas were distilled and expanded in an excellently crafted article that situates Dixon’s composition “Webern” in the broader context of what Dewar calls “post-songform jazz.” [2] He historicizes and analyzes the three published recordings of the piece, both in light of Dixon’s own boundary-blurring definitions of improvisation and composition but as an ontological phenomenon, eradicating similar boundaries of orchestration, timbre, and range. Benjamin Young’s pioneering bio-discography is less detailed concerning Dixon’s musical odyssey, but it provides, in Dixon’s own words, detailed information concerning rehearsals, concerts and recordings, some of which are lost or have not seen official release. [3] While Dixon’s organization of the 1964 October Revolution and subsequent Jazz Composers Guild is well documented, he was simultaneously involved in an array of musical activities, both as performer and teacher. This article might be construed as another stone in the foundation of Dixon scholarship, one more voice in what, it is hoped, will be a growing dialogue concerning his large, and largely unexplored, compositional corpus.

In a recent article concerning the reissue of Bill Dixon’s RCA album Intents and Purposes, originally released in 1967 (RCA Victor LPM/LSP-3844), Francis Davis concludes: “Intents and Purposes calls for a re-evaluation, as a reissue ideally should. But the story didn’t end there, and neither should our reassessment.” [4] Davis links the album’s two brief “Nightfall Pieces” to Dixon’s final composition, Envoi, recorded just three weeks before the composer’s 2010 death. Davis’s impulse is commendable, but his open-ended conclusion is closer to the mark, almost a prescriptive blueprint for the direction Dixon scholarship should take. Exhibiting a dense and complex type of motivic metamorphosis in what might be labeled an oblique process, Intents and Purposes lays the motivic groundwork for the rest of Dixon’s career, but it also demonstrates a striking unity on its own terms, especially in the context of the practices then current in what is still dishearteningly labeled “free jazz.” The complex web of motives and motivic development pervading the four-part suite is similarly employed in many of Dixon’s subsequent compositions, particularly the as-yet unreleased music for the Free Conservatory Orchestra of the University of the Streets, composed during 1967 and 1968. Beyond similarity of process, Intents and Purposes’s motivic material returns, rhythmically similar and with elaborations, in the University of the Streets music, rendering the RCA album a starting point for a unified corpus.

Intents and Purposes was released to little fanfare and worse distribution. It was originally planned to appear on RCA Red Seal, the label’s classical imprint, but this did not happen. [5] According to Dixon, the album’s subtitle, The Jazz Artistry of Bill Dixon, was also contentious, as he neither sanctioned the inclusion of that subtitle, nor did he believe that “jazz” was an apt descriptor for the music he was composing. [6] Ironically, Dan Morgenstern’s rather dismissive Down Beat review of the music heard at the now-ubiquitous October Revolution supports Dixon’s assertions of independence from the tradition known as jazz. “The new jazz is a form of 20th century art music rather than that unique blend of popular and ‘true’ art that has been [...] jazz as we know it. It deserves to be [...] spared from the need to compete with mainstream jazz artists [...]” [7] This perceptive description was certainly accurate regarding Dixon’s compositions at that time, especially as documented on his second recording session for Savoy, and it would continue to be true regarding Dixon’s subsequent work. His 1967 album is now regarded as seminal precisely because it defies easy compositional, formal, and structural categorization in a time when many of the most ardent experimentalists were still employing a more standard compositional language and version of the soloist/rhythm section hierarchy so integral to jazz. [8] Yet, at this writing, there has been no academic analysis of the album, nor has it been contextualized in an academic setting. Most likely, the difficulties in categorizing the album that are so important to its now-classic status play a part in the lack of consideration afforded it in the forty-five years since its release. Dixon’s use of ensemble owes as much to twentieth-century classical music as it does to jazz, and the result fuses both approaches while being predominantly beholden to neither. When, in 2006, I mentioned to the composer that I heard the first movement, “Metamorphosis,” as a theme with variations, he responded, with evident annoyance, “No, I wouldn’t use that term. Don’t you understand how limiting that is? It doesn’t even come close to describing the depth of what’s happening.” [8] Dixon was correct, and this study constitutes an attempt to come to terms with the movement’s title and its implications for the entire suite.

One of the most striking, and, to this music, novel features of Intents and Purposes is its unity. It consists of four movements, two long and two very brief, each side containing a long ensemble piece and a brief chamber work. Despite the often semi-static nature of the music, especially of the “Nightfall Pieces”, Dixon employs a constant and dense web of counterpoint in which he interweaves a series of motives and their transformations; these bind the work in ways similar to Messiaen’s Boris Godunov motive, which is, in turn, indebted to his assimilation of the Wagnerian Leitmotif principal, though without the latter’s ideological baggage. Perhaps two even better comparisons might be with Bartok’s first string quartet, where the dyads on which the first movement is based are eventually revealed to be part of a longer melodic idea, and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings, where a very similar set of counterpoint-based motivic procedures is in evidence. To untangle the many and simultaneous iterations of all motives in the suite is beyond the scope of this study, but I have attempted to locate and chart two basic motivic building blocks, both based on very similar material and then subjected to what Jann Pasler, in analyzing Debussy’s Jeux, calls “the surprise effect of metamorphosis.” [10] Most often recurrent throughout Intents and Purposes is a minor second dyad, both ascending and descending, the two notes either being equal in length or the second being longer. If equal, the two pitches are sometimes followed by a leap up or down, often encompassing a major seventh or octave, less often a major sixth. While these are by no means the only consequents to the germinal motivic dyad, they unify the work through a complex process of metamorphosis and link it to the University of the Streets project, for which Intents and Purposes seems to have been a musical blueprint. [11] I will refer to the germinal motive as the dyad and the dyad with an appendage as the dyad-plus-1 motive. In several instances, the dyad-plus-1 motive is elongated, and these will be noted as they occur. However, as their construction obviously derives from the dyad, it seemed inappropriate to rename the motives. [12]

The multivalent motivic material that unifies Intents and Purposes is evident from the work’s first bars. The opening of “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, the suite’s first movement, presents the dyad motive in the English horn, surrounded by a polyphonic web of diatonically related and disparate material. (Example 1) When this rising version of the dyad returns, it always begins a phrase, such as the one containing its saxophone iteration at 0:15. The first two minutes and forty-five seconds are replete with versions of this motive, which at times appears with its inverse.

Example 1. Dixon, “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, 0:15

Immediately following the 0:15 saxophone version, the English horn has a descending minor second. This is the version of the motive that serves as a kind of ostinato during the two-bass passage from 2:49–3:45. During that temporal stretch, Dixon repeats the motive in the trumpet’s middle range, sometimes lingering on one pitch longer than the other, sometimes speeding up or slowing down the motive’s tempo in a linear demonstration of the motivic metamorphosis that governs the entire work. (Example 2)

Example 2. Dixon, “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, 2:49

Along with the germinal dyad, the opening two minutes also contain initial iterations of the dyad-plus-1 version of the motive. At 0:59, a slightly unstable version is heard when the tenor saxophone states the minor second, beginning on C, but within the space usually allotted to the second pitch, moves from C to C♯ and then to D. Immediately subsequent, what sounds like two flutes pick up the motivic thread, in Webernian pointillism, with a C an octave above the saxophones initial entry. Subsequently, the most prominent versions of this form of the motive appear at 3:59 and 6:35, with an ascending iteration in the cello. (Example 3)

Example 3. Dixon, “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, 3:59

Beginning at 4:09, what might be described as an elongated version of the dyad-plus-1 motive, with a major seventh and an appended figure, underpins Byard Lancaster’s solo, just as the descending minor second had done for the two bassists’ passages. It exists in two alternating versions, which pervade the texture, the last iteration occurring at 5:46. (Example 4)

Example 4. Dixon, “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, 4:09

The cello then spins a melodic line that contains many iterations of the minor second, both in its original form and in dyad-plus-1 descending motion, the descending seventh now augmented to become an octave. This version’s first statement occurs at 6:58; the line is stated, and the first seven notes of the line are then repeated verbatim, beginning at 7:31. This line and its complex transformation of the germinal motivic material will have consequences for the other movements of the suite. (Example 5)

Example 5. Dixon, “Metamorphosis 1962–1966”, 6:58

I have attempted to chart the most direct line taken by the dyadic motive and its closest relations through “Metamorphosis”, the first movement of the suite, and yet, my best efforts can only yield an approximation, as there are numerous motives occurring simultaneously. Dixon’s trumpet line, presumably all improvised, [13] contains many references, at lightning speed and in no fixed meter, to the motives discussed above. There are also melodic strands throughout the movement that are constructed of elements which, at least superficially, bear no relation to those motives. I have chosen the dyads because they unify the entire suite. To that end, the third movement, “Voices”, begins, after several timpani passages employing what might be described as extended technique, with an ascending version of the dyad delivered by the cello, and then repeated in transposition at 0:57 and taken up by the clarinet at 1:03. Another line containing both ascending and descending minor seconds, more distantly related to the suite’s other melodies, appears at 0:18, immediately following the cello motive, but at 0:23, the bass has a version of the dyad in its original short-long formation. Versions appear and reappear throughout the movement, similarly to the way they pervade “Metamorphosis”, rendering “Voices” a complement in terms of motivic development.

More important than the charting of motives and their transformations in a movement, which might be construed as bean-counting, is the way the dyad-based motives inform the “Nightfall Pieces”, most notably the second, and the way it informs listener perception of the suite as a whole. As with Boulez’s Marteau sans Maitre, these two brief excursions serve as commentaries to, or summations of, the other movements. They are scored for a much smaller complement of instruments, two flutes and two trumpets in the first case, two trumpets in the second instance. In both cases, overdubbing is used as George Marge and Bill Dixon perform all of the parts. In “Nightfall Pieces I”, the flute part is in strict canon, and it begins with a four-note iteration of the elongated dyad-plus-1 motive in its ascending major seventh version, with a minor second appendage, followed immediately by a restatement, transposed a minor third down. This interweaving of dyad and dyad-plus-1 motives is reminiscent of the melodic line from “Metamorphosis” illustrated above. (Example 6) The trumpet lines are improvised, and the trumpet’s first statement is a rapid-fire minor second trill, beginning at 0:03.

Example 6. Dixon, “Nightfall Pieces I”, 0:03

In “Nightfall Pieces II”, the trumpet in the right channel presents a descending and ascending minor second dyad in repetition, followed by the short-long dyad at 0:10 and then the ascending dyad-plus-1, this time with an appended sixth replacing the seventh, at 0:16. A short-long version of the motive follows immediately, and in fact, the right channel trumpet’s part consists almost entirely of the dyad, or the dyad-plus-1, in transformation.

The dyadic motives serve yet another purpose in the “Nightfall Pieces II” commentary in that the majority of stated and implied harmonies employ dyads forming seconds, sixths, or sevenths, demonstrating serially the suite’s most crucial harmonies. The most obvious presentation of these harmonic dyads occurs from the counterpoint produced when both trumpets have entered at 0:03 until 0:19, when pitches become bent to the point of obscurity. In these crucial and demonstrative sixteen seconds, the pitch aggregates are conspicuous in that they often form seconds or sevenths, as at 0:04 and 0:05. (Example 7a)

Example 7a. Dixon, “Nightfall Pieces II”, 0:03

Even the octaves and unisons, at 0:14 and 0:15 respectively, might be construed as being deliberately detuned to produce dyads in microtonal harmony, prefiguring the pitch eschewing to follow. There are many other harmonic dyads much purer in nature, such as the long major second at 0:52, or the chain of minor and major seconds beginning at 1:19. (Examples 7b and 7c)

Example 7b. Dixon, “Nightfall Pieces II”, 0:52

Example 7c. Dixon, “Nightfall Pieces II”, 1:19

The piece, and indeed the suite, ends with one of those near-unisons, the two notes presented at a dynamic ebb, momentarily pulsing in something approaching overtonal sympathy but never quite achieving or abandoning it, obscuring the notions of “unison” and “second” in the process. “Nightfall Pieces II” is, then, extracted from the motivic counterpoint and transformations occurring throughout the larger and longer movements. With even more concision than the first, it presents the metamorphic process in its ur-form, at its most stripped down and readily audible; beyond that, in its alternately stark and elusive intervallic implications, it illustrates and elucidates the mystery at the heart of the whole work, the aesthetic that renders it unique. To label the suite as “jazz” because of the improvisations that guide it forward is as misleading as to give it the rapidly stagnating appellation “classical” because of its composed components. As the motives and their attendant harmonies transform, blurring notions of pitch, sonority, and timbre as they proceed, they guide the music along the non-linear and circuitous path of all boundary-breaking compositions. “Nightfall Pieces II” provides the transformational blueprint expanded upon by “Metamorphosis” and “Voices.”

As remarkable as Intents and Purposes is for its unity and variety of transformational processes, it now seems to have been but one component of, or model for, a larger work written for the Free Conservatory Orchestra of the University of the Streets during late 1967 and 1968. The work was never completed, although what might be considered a taped run-through exists, along with associated rehearsals. [14] The music that survives is similar, but, judging from the run-through, seemingly less sectional than Intents and Purposes. The pieces do share similarly dense contrapuntal concerns and a propensity for dynamic ebbs and swells. Beyond these generalities, they also share motivic material, namely versions of the dyad and dyad-plus-1 motives presented above. Clear transformations in the conceptions of these motives has occurred, and their linear and interwoven juxtapositions are denser than those on Intents and Purposes.

The run-through opens with a single dyad on vibraphone, a simultaneous rendering of the two notes associated with the minor second dyadic motive, succeeded by a third but clearly separated pitch. This is a reconsideration of the dyad-plus-1 motive, transformed even beyond its renderings in Intents and Purposes. (Example 8a) Following almost immediately, a clarinet presents an ascending version of the dyad-plus-1, though now, the dyad is a major second and the added pitch falls a minor sixth above the dyad’s second note. (Example 8b)

Example 8a. Dixon, untitled music for the University of the Streets

Example 8b. Dixon, untitled music for the University of the Streets

The texture subsequently thickens, but at 0:41, the first of many iterations of the minor second dyad is heard in a second clarinet. At 1:09, English horn and trumpet present the minor second dyad vertically, and it is then transferred, horizontally, to the English horn. At 1:20, what seems to be two French horns present an ascending dyad in which the minor second is now inverted, becoming a major seventh. Simultaneously, a clarinet presents the ascending dyad in its original form while a trombone plays the descending dyad-plus-1, the third note now an octave below the second. All of these motivic transformations and superimpositions take place in about eleven seconds as the dynamic level gradually increases. They speak to a more complex and subtle instrumental pallet and to a more natural, or organic, unfolding of events, as this music involved less conventional composition and more innovative communication than Intents and Purposes. [15] However, the material is similar enough to that RCA album that at least melodic lines must have been distributed to the Free Conservatory Orchestra participants.

An analysis of the nearly forty-five minute run-through, and an examination of the complex circumstances for the piece’s abandonment, is beyond the scope of this study. What might be said here is that, far from being the self-contained exercise in motivic transformation it is, Intents and Purposes represents a step along the path that Dixon would explore in future projects, realized or not, with textures that are at once more obliquely complex and more clearly defined and developed.


While Bill Dixon’s Intents and Purposes marked the beginning of a unified compositional trajectory, it also proved antithetical to the many and deservedly lauded musical styles simultaneously birthed. The conundrums it presents, both analytical and social, must be addressed if its historical place is to be understood. While Dixon always stated, throughout the many interviews I was privileged to conduct with him, that he would rather his more recent compositions become the subjects of scholarly investigation, it seems impractical to examine his later syntactic and soloistic developments without first laying what I believe to be the necessary groundwork. This is what has been attempted in the present study. It is a single and admittedly narrow path through an extremely dense and complex work, one whose musical issues alone raise many questions concerning genre, race, and the multifarious preconceptions engendered by both. It should also be noted that the released portion of Dixon’s output forms only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; his archive is rife with unheard compositions and documents of concert performances. All that I have heard are as rich as they are diverse, and all are in need of appraisal and contextualization. A deep and analytical study of Bill Dixon’s work, which it certainly deserves, would reveal Intents and Purposes to be an important entry in his discography and the cornerstone of the compositional edifice that was more than half a century under construction.


  • Collins, Troy. “The Bill Dixon Orchestra: Intents and Purposes.” AllAboutJazz
  • Davis, Francis. “Bill Dixon’s Dance Notation.” Village Voice (July 13, 2011)
  • Dewar, Andrew Raffo. “Searching for the Center of a Sound: Bill Dixon’s Webern, the Unaccompanied Solo, and Compositional Ontology in Post-Songform Jazz.” Jazz Perspectives 4, no. 1 (April 2010): 59–87.
  • Dewar, Andrew Raffo. “‘This is an American Music’: Aesthetics, Music and Visual Art of Bill Dixon.” Master’s Thesis, Wesleyan University, 2004.
  • Morgenstern, Dan. “The October Revolution.” Down Beat 31 (November 19, 1964): 15, 33.
  • Pasler, Jann. “Debussy, Jeux: Playing with Time and Form.” 19th-Century Music 6, no. 1 (Summer 1982): 60–75.
  • Young, Benjamin. Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.


[1] Andrew Raffo Dewar, “‘This is an American Music’: Aesthetics, Music and Visual Art of Bill Dixon” (Master’s Thesis, Wesleyan University, 2004).

[2] Andrew Raffo Dewar, “Searching for the Center of a Sound: Bill Dixon’s Webern, the Unaccompanied Solo, and Compositional Ontology in Post-Songform Jazz,” Jazz Perspectives 4, no. 1 (April 2010): 59.

[3] Benjamin Young, Dixonia: A Bio-Discography of Bill Dixon (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998).

[4] See Francis Davis article: (accessed 10/15/2014).

[5] Young, Dixonia, 111.

[6] Ibid., 111.

[7] Dan Morgenstern, “The October Revolution,” Down Beat 31 (November 19, 1964): 15, 33.

[8] See, for example, Troy Collins’s perceptive review, from AllAboutJazz, of the International Phonograph reissue: (accessed October 15, 2015).

[9] Bill Dixon, phone interview with the author, November 7, 2006.

[10] Jann Pasler, “Debussy, Jeux: Playing with Time and Form,” 19th-Century Music, 6, no. 1 (Summer 1982): 63.

[11] Confirmed by Dixon in a November 2006 interview with the author. “Sure, that relationship is entirely probable, because I wasn’t finished with the material yet; I hadn’t gotten it all out of my system.”

[12] As Intents and Purposes does not survive in score save for a few fragments, my transcriptions and instrumental observations are based, in large part, on intensive listening to the recording and, in a few acknowledged instances, conversations with the composer. Additionally, due to a lack of written sources, my transcriptions will be supported by track timings (as taken from the International Phonograph reissue) instead of measure numbers.

[13] In Dixonia, 110, Dixon refers to his trumpet line as the high solo line. In the same excerpt, he also discusses his unwillingness, at that time, to trust other musicians to improvise, but at no point does he make any reference to his own solos being written.

[14] Ibid., 130.

[15] Ibid., 111.

Author Information: 
Marc Medwin received his Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a dissertation focusing on the late works of John Coltrane. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Performing Arts Department of American University, Washington, D.C. In addition to teaching, he maintains an active schedule as music reviewer and performing musician.

Composer and trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925–2010) was an influential force in new developments in jazz beginning in the 1960s, but his compositions, which do not fit comfortably in either the jazz or Western classical traditions, have not received detailed examination. This article examines pieces on his 1967 RCA Victor album Intents and Purposes, identifying and analyzing musical motives and making connections between these pieces and another unreleased Dixon work.

Bill Dixon, Intents and Purposes, motivic development, composition, jazz

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Medwin, Marc. “Motivic Transformation in Bill Dixon’s ‘Intents and Purposes’.” Current Research in Jazz 7, (2015).
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