Drawing Parallels Between Conceptual Art and Free Jazz
I stumbled across this video today and couldn’t help but draw parallels between conceptual art and free jazz. As a music student I loved free jazz and the avant garde, the more “out” the more I enjoyed it. As I developed my craft, learned the history of music, and began working with some of my avant heroes I lost my taste for much of this “music.”
When we traditionally think about what makes sound music is the intersection of melody, harmony, rhythm and time. So when we take all of these elements away what are we left with? I’ll let you draw your own conclusion. This is not to say that there isn’t great music that is free of SOME of these elements but rarely when all are void. When we listen to late John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, or Eric Dolphy, the “founding fathers” of free jazz, we as listeners are given something that so many who came after seem to forget or outright neglect. Context. Progressivism is not about neglecting the history of music, it’s about re-imagining the possibilities within the context of what already exists. There are only 12 pitches, so what are you going to do with them that hasn’t been done? What kind of rhythms can you create that are unique, new, provocative? What kind of instruments or technology can you use that has not before been featured? The true conceptual artists in music draw from the context of what makes music, music.
Let’s look at one of the true innovators of “jazz” in the last 20 years Steve Coleman as an example. It’s evident that he has studied and mastered the work of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, among others and developed new concepts in rhythm (odd meter, multi meter groupings, cross rhythms, mixed meter grooves) and harmono-melodic devices (negative harmony). He is also a master of his instrument which is a prerequisite for demonstrating emotional content or intellectual concepts through music to an audience. How can you express yourself if you don’t have the means in which to do so? Can you write poetry in German without studying German vocabulary, sentence structure, idioms, etc? You MUST be able to translate what you hear in your head into your horn, which comes from the study and mastery of the foundation of your craft (in music: scales, theory, ear training, technique/facility, etc.)
On my first day as a sophomore in college a professor presented our class with a book of the life and work of the impressionist painter Monet. As he opened the book and began flipping the pages he showed us dozens of paintings and portraits done in a realist approach. Without mastering how to paint a bowl of fruit or a human face, how could Monet develop from the style of his predecessors to the impressionistic style that he made famous years later. I argue that he could not. It’s imperative to know how your tools work and all the ways in which they can be applied. One more anecdote – the great drummer and composer John Hollenbeck presented a masterclass and a student asked him about his practice routine when he was in school. His response was that he would spend his time sitting behind the drums attempting to find every possible sound one could create within the context of the “jazz drum kit.” How can you make a 5 piece kit sound completely new or how can you re imagine playing this instrument? That is progress.
The idea that some art is only for “intellectuals” is bullshit. As the saying goes jazz is social music, and if art is a reflection of life or an escape from reality there must be something real within it or from which to move. Something there for anyone to grasp. Not necessarily to understand, but to at least be able to hold on to. The reason the lay person loves Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things but not Interstellar Space is the context or frame within which Coltrane can express himself. The familiarity of the frame in this case a song from a children’s movie, allows the audience to hold onto something familiar. Now check out this live performance of My Favorite Things from 1965
Here there are many elements of “free” or avant playing, there is risk taking, boundary pushing, a release from the traditional harmony, “abrasive” melodies however there is a groove and there are traditional roles being fulfilled by the band throughout the performance. Another example is film music. If we were to listen to scores of some films in a concert hall many would find those compositions cacophonous, however given the context of the emotion and image of the scene in the film, this same music can translate the emotional content to the audience better than the film itself.
A movement like free jaz in the late 60’s served a social and political purpose as did the futurist movement in Italy after WW1. Art as a movement needs to reflect where society is going, which you cannot do if you don’t know from where you came. Let’s look at the evolution of “classical” music. In the common era Baroque music succeeded Renaissance, reflecting a lifestyle of opulence and elegance in society after the era of rebirth and free thinking. The classical period followed next, a response to the opulent lifestyle of the Baroque was a movement to neo-classicism represented in society by Greek and Roman architecture, and an emphasis on order and hierarchy. This era was followed by the romantic era as society progressed beyond the classical. Composers no longer needed to create music to please their patrons, the industrial revolution created new technologies, and a disconnect from the traditional forms of the classical period dictate this style.
Movements in art usually precede movements in society but the two go hand in hand be it the baroque in Italy or punk rock in New York City in the late 70’s. Of course an audience is not expected to nor should it like everything presented to them but we must draw a distinction between a meaningful well executed artistic responses to what came before and some pseudo intellectualism wherein the creator has to rely on you the audience to derive meaning (if any) from the work. Free jazz as played by imitators is the equivalent of the enormous rock adorning LACMA in 2014 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levitated_Mass) it’s big and cumbersome, paid for by the elite through government grants, and is an utterly meaningless waste of time and space. As Charlie Parker said “learn the changes so you can forget them.”
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