Thursday, June 11, 2015

Harmolodics and Holomorphy

Ornette Coleman died today.

And with him died any chance for an authoritative version of his treatise on harmolodics, which he had reportedly been working on for decades.  Oh, I daresay we may eventually see some fractured notes (pun intended) about harmolodics, but we will not see the definitive statement of what it is.

To be sure, it's entirely possible that any treatise about harmolodics would have been allusive and telegraphic at best.  Coleman was notoriously cagey about describing harmolodics, and players in Prime Time, Coleman's group, were obviously fearful of being pinned down to any concrete statement that might get back to Coleman (who understandably might be upset about his creation being characterized in a way not to his liking).

Practically speaking, harmolodics was what Coleman played with Prime Time, or at least aimed at playing.  He was said to have denied that any of his albums actually achieved harmolodic playing.  So we have no guarantee that any particular piece was exemplary of his musical philosophy.  In some sense, then, there might not be any ironclad difference between harmolodics and entirely free jazz.

Nonetheless, the nagging suspicion of many a listener was that there was something to harmolodics, that it didn't sound entirely free, that there was some structure lurking in there somewhere.  We might even imagine Ornette himself, driven by inspirations even he couldn't completely articulate, nonetheless moving the music in directions that felt "right" to him, if not specified or unique.  It's a tantalizing task to try to describe what that structure might be like.

If any authoritative vision of harmolodics died with him, so however did the possibility of being declared definitively wrong.  Musicology is in a sense freer now to come up with a descriptive notion of harmolodics, as opposed to what might have been Coleman's own more prescriptive one.  So here are my personal thoughts on harmolodics, based on a moderate amount of listening to Ornette Coleman recordings.

It's an odd idea, the concept of Coleman prescribing what harmolodics was, because even if it wasn't entirely free, he still viewed it as being freer than traditional jazz.  Still, he did seem to consistently assert that harmolodics was about denying the hegemony of harmony.  He viewed harmolodic music as equal parts harmony, melody, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, etc., all acknowledged as parts of a musical performance.  Granted, it's probably not possible to say precisely what "equal" means in this context (can you imagine measuring a particular piece to be exactly 75 percent harmony and 25 percent melody?), but it's hard to deny that traditional jazz performance is driven more by harmony—the chord changes—than by the melody in the head.  Presumably, that dominance is what Coleman wanted to counter; he frequently alluded to a "democracy" amongst the performers and the music they created.

One of the things that strikes me when listening to Prime Time and other ostensibly harmolodic groups play is that although any piece may seem to meander along aimlessly, individual segments of it typically do not.  That is, if you were to listen to any one-second snippet of a harmolodic piece, it "makes sense" in a way that we don't usually associate with harmolodics.  It sounds like it could come out of many a jazz piece.  So perhaps one thing that distinguishes harmolodics from other jazz forms is that the parts that make sense don't persist as long in harmolodics.

Let me try to make that more explicit by reference to traditional jazz pieces.  Suppose we're looking at a twelve-bar blues, the most traditional of the traditional jazz forms.  Everyone plays this at some point.  Even in a jazz setting, with its penchant for alteration, a fairly standard chord progression runs

| C7    | F7    | C7    | %     |
| F7    | %     | C7    | Em A7 |
| Dm7   | G7    | C7 A7 | D7 G7 |

Because everyone is playing to the same chart, whenever the bass is playing G7, so is the piano, so is the horn, etc.  It all "makes sense," because each performer is playing notes in the same scale.  We might characterize such playing as all taking place along the same line, or "linear."

What's more, the transition from, say, G7 to C7, although it's not exactly the same scale, is very nearly the same.  It differs in exactly one spot: The position occupied by B in the G7 scale becomes a Bb in the C7 scale.  So although it's not exactly on the same line, it's still diatonic.  We might say that it's in the same plane, to stretch (ever so slightly) a mathematical metaphor.  Thus it's not very surprising to hear.  Most of the other transitions in these changes are like that, and even those that aren't, are so familiar to our ears that we don't find them jarring at all.  On the contrary, those transitions are so familiar that it becomes jarring when we don't follow them.

It occurs to me that there is an analogue to be made here between the familiar plane of traditional jazz and harmolodics on one hand, and the familiar plane of Euclidean geometry and curved space on the other hand.

I've talked about curved space in other contexts before, where it's directly related to gravitation.  Here, obviously, the application is less precise, but I'll try to keep it from being wholly vacuous.  The idea is that when we say a section of music is diatonic, that's like saying it's flat—and I don't mean "flat" as in opposite of "sharp," or even that it's uninspired.  It simply means that it obeys the familiar rules of traditional jazz.

When it came time to specify what curved space means in physics, one of the central motivating tenets is that although it's globally curved, locally it's flat, in the limit.  That's why wherever you are in the universe, as long as you're relatively small (small compared to the curvature of spacetime), things behave more or less the way you're used to.  That's relativity.

In the same way, when you're listening to a piece of harmolodic music, although the whole of it doesn't constrain itself to any single musical plane, locally (that is, at any immediate moment), it does.  In particular, that means there aren't any immediately jarring transitions, but changes smoothly (differentiably, we might say!) from one moment to the next.  That's what gives harmolodic music the feel of being unanchored, and yet not having any moments of discontinuity, where what happens next is wholly divorced from what came before.

And how does one arrive at what comes next?  To my ear, that's where the democracy that Coleman was striving for comes in.  In traditional jazz, the lead chart—the chord sequence—dictates what comes next.  When I listen to harmolodic music, what I hear is an instantaneous bending of the musical fabric, where at any moment, any performer might play the note, or the rhythm, or even the articulation that changes the direction of the group and the music as a whole.  Maybe, if the recent actions of the rhythm section have pointed toward a C major scale, the horn might begin C-E-D-F—

—but then continue E-G#-F#-A-Ab-C-Bb-Db, following the intervallic motive of up a major third, down a major second, up a minor third, down a minor second, and then repeating a major third higher.  The bass and piano might follow suit—perhaps playing in double time for a moment to match the speed of the melodic line—but only for the moment, before one or the other of them again takes the lead in steering the music in yet another direction.

Obviously, carrying such an idea to fruition requires the performers to listen intently to each other, and to develop an almost preternatural intuition about their fellow musicians and their likely directions.  It's an interesting balance, though, since too little anticipation means that the music won't make sense for long stretches, while too much anticipation means implicitly restricting where the music can and can't go, and paradoxically limiting the very freedom that the approach was meant to foster.  Still, properly handled, it could enable a group to produce music that sounds cohesive and yet is freed from much of the shackles of traditional jazz.  To put it in the vernacular of the time in which harmolodics started, it would allow the music to ascend to a higher dimension.

I hope to make some time in the future to look at specific recordings and use them to substantiate the general framework I've described here.  (Also, I realize there's precious little reference to holomorphy here, other than the one mention of differentiability, but I couldn't resist the alliteration.)

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