29 May 2007

Sweating The Details

If you read The Nation, you may have noticed that the May 14 issue featured a sizable piece on Ornette Coleman and the long-overdue awards he has received recently. It's always nice when a worthy music-related story gets covered by a non-musical publication with wide distribution. What was not so thrilling, however, was some of the terminological malfeasance committed by the author of the story, David Yaffe. In the midst of putting Coleman's musical innovations into historical context, Yaffe wrote the following:

Miles Davis's Kind of Blue had come out a couple of months earlier, just a few months after John Coltrane's Giant Steps, each disdaining chord changes in favor of solemn inquiries into chords and modes. Davis's So What coolly navigated between a couple of minor Mixolydian modes; Coltrane's Giant Steps circled the circle of fifths.

For all the good intentions behind the article, this passage is nothing short of an embarrassment. It is possible (remotely) that the term "minor Mixolydian" is a provincialism of which I was not previously aware; I've met a few particularly nerdy classical theorists who refer to Mixolydian as "minor major" because it has a major third and a minor seventh. This possibility notwithstanding, I'm reasonably sure that Yaffe made it up. In any case, the diatonic mode which "So What" is based on has its own name (Dorian), so there is really no need to use another name in its place.

There is perhaps less reason to get worked up over the circle of fifths reference. Though what Yaffe wrote is technically incorrect, I have seen the term used in this colloquial manner before. In any case, Giant Steps is based on a circle of sorts, but it's best described as a circle of major thirds rather than a circle of fifths. Of course, each change is prepared by means of an applied V or II-V, and this results in roots moving in fifths (or fourths) from V to I, but who could ever have confused one "circle" for the other at the time "Giant Steps" was released, when it sounded to most people like it came from outer space? The term "cirlce of fifths" refers to something completely different and, even in 1960, totally mundane. On the other hand, Giant Steps uses only three keys (B, G, and E-flat), meaning that to actually "circle the circle of fifths" would be 400% more work.

The misuse of terminology certainly detracts from the authority of the article, but the fatal error in Yaffe's process occurred long before he chose is words. In fact, given the egregiousness of the modal mixup, it stands to reason that at some point the decision was made that it was more important to sound hip than to be technically correct. If he had wanted to be crystal clear, he could have avoided the jargon altogether and written something like this:

Both Miles and Coltrane were moving away from the dominant jazz style of the late 1950's (known as hard-bop), but in different directions. For example, whereas Miles implemented more static harmonies and a relaxed tempo in his classic So What, Coltrane did the exact opposite in the landmark Giant Steps, filling the tune with many then unfamiliar chord changes and taking it at a blistering pace. Somewhat paradoxically, Ornette's brand of "free jazz" appears in hindsight to be the inevitable consequence of both Davis's and Coltrane's innovations, despite the fact that the two were headed largely in opposite directions at this time. This is one source of his iconic standing in many modern jazz cirlces.

That this explanation is both less technical and more to the point than Yaffe's belies the fact that it also (ahem...if I don't say so myself) requires a very strong technical musical background to know how to produce such a thing. It is notoriously difficult to explain obscure technical topics in plain English, regardless of the subject, and editors are justifiably weary of articles that are too technical. One way to address that fear is to hire people who simply don't have the technical background at all; in this case as always, the results of that approach speak for themselves.

I don't think it is by any means too extreme to expect more out of the critical establishment. Musicians as a group may not be a model of intellectual potency, but I would venture that there are more than enough who deal equally well with music and the English language to make a more attractive solution possible. I hesitate to invite readers to peruse the blogosphere in search of support for this claim, but there are a few good examples lurking out there (hint: check out the "Of Interest" column at right for a decent start). And given that it is no easier to make a living as a jazz musician than it ever has been as a writer, you can bet your life that there are more than a few who would accept most any offer to function in both capacities. There are plenty of musicians who could have produced a piece on Ornette that was every bit as well-written and well-informed, yet also technically correct and entirely comprehensible to non-musicians.

Anyone who knows enough to use those terms correctly would also have been capable of making the same point more clearly without resorting to jargon at all. Of course, the problem is that music critics (particularly when it comes to jazz) love to resort to jargon because they think it will make them sound hip, inevitably leading otherwise respectable journalists to venture further out than even they know they should. In point of fact, this benefits no one: musicians don't need it, and non-musicians don't understand it. Any explanation one could manage with a limited technical background is going to be superfluous to the musically educated reader, particularly in the case of material as widely known as So What and Giant Steps. On the other hand, Yaffe's explanation, even if it had been correct, would not have meant anything to readers who possess no musical training. This is my most frequent complaint about program notes, both at concerts and with commercial recordings, that launch into prose music theory analyses of the music. I don't think I could have fabricated a better example to support my own complaints than the passage from Yaffe's article. In this case, specialists will know the actual chord changes to the two tunes by memory while non-musicians will not know what a mode or circle of fifths is at all. The use of jargon here is truly superfluous.

Lest I be seen as taking cheap shots at poor David Yaffe purely for sport, let me clarify that this is only the latest example of many that I have seen over the years. I wish to level these criticisms at the entire world of music journalism, not just one author or one publication. This case merely pushed me over the edge (although I have to admit, I'm almost starting to like it over here). The following cases also deserve mention:

•the assertion made during the Ken Burns Jazz documentary that Charlie Parker was the first jazz musician to improvise solely on the structure (chord changes) of a tune rather than the melody (anyone over at PBS ever heard of that Louis Armstrong guy?)

•stories told to me by a friend of a certain local writer who frequently confuses rhythm and meter

•stories from a friend of mine (an accomplished musician) who took a jazz history class taught through another (non-music) department. My friend never stopped talking about how poor the professor's technical musical background was, and how way too much of the lectures consisted of this professor explaining concepts incorrectly to students who wouldn't have understood them anyway

If I wanted to absolve the writers of any wrongdoing whatsoever, I would offer this explanation: writers know that the vast majority of their audience won't understand phrases like "symmetrical division of the octave" or "upper structures." Finding colloquial substitutes for such specialized music jargon is impossible, so they fall back on concepts that a fair number of educated people could reasonably be expected to know (i.e. the distinction between melody and harmony in the Burns example, and the circle of fifths in Yaffe's case) and stretch them to the semantic breaking point in order to hold the whole thing together. This, however, does more than merely dumb things down: in both cases, it is actually fatal to the accuracy of the presentation. This explanation may even be too generous, for it is painfully obvious that Yaffe (and/or his editor) doesn't know the theory at all. Hence, another possible explanation would be that the critical establishment has a proclivity for hipster jargon that is all out of proportion to the strength of their technical musical background. It is fitting that this shallow intention should most always doom the bearer to public embarrassment, if not only to those "in the know."

Now we've come to the part of the article where I address the question that always gets asked when anyone nitpicks about terminology: "Who the hell cares, and why?" I would hope that it would be self-evident to a good number of readers that intellectual integrity is crucially dependent on the accuracy of the article from top to bottom. God knows if I make one little boo-boo here, someone often chimes in to correct me (and a hell of a lot more people read The Nation than read my blog). As the errors add up, one starts to question the overall accuracy of the work, or even the publication as a whole. Yaffe says that Ornette once asked a doctor to castrate him; that certainly makes for great cocktail party banter, but how do I know this is accurate coming from someone who describes Giant Steps as disdaining chord changes?

A minor typo is one thing, but making up one's own terminology is another. I will not re-type the Alice in Wonderland quote here; you all know how it goes. Incorrect usage earns seventh graders a slap on the wrist from their English teachers; why should it be tolerated at the professional level? Even if you think it's harmless (and I would disagree), it's still not right, or at least not as right as it could be. Authors ought to have their own best interests in mind anyway (i.e. getting hired back, and/or gaining stature based on the overall quality of their work), but where they don't, we owe it to them to make them owe it to us. How's that for clarity?

Somehow, I'll condense all of this into a paragraph and send it to The Nation. I'd be the first to agree that they have more important things to worry about, so I doubt they will print it. The outside chance that someone might read it and really think about it, however, is enough for me.


tristero said...

Stefan, Your description of Coltrane and Miles' music is much better than Yaffe's, to be sure. But there's something askew with the notion - not yours, I gather - that Ornette somehow combines the two.

I certainly hear the Trane influence on Ornette, but it worked both ways. Coltrane was deeply influenced by Ornette; the two pushed each other.

As for Ornette and Miles, I dunno, I just don't hear very much it, esp. in regards to Kind of Blue. You can think of the modal bebop idea as a kind of modulation scheme, to different autonomous modes every x number of bars (pardon the jargon; your point is extremely well taken, btw). I'm sure I don't know Coleman's music as well as I do, but Ornette seems not that interested in modulation as he is about exploring the idea of playing inside the key, outside it, and both simultaneously. This seems to me the exact opposite of Kind of Blue's technique which is that the whole ensemble switches to an entirely different mode and stays, mostly, within that mode to the next change.

So I hear Ornette in a very different fashion. I think his influences are clearly the blues, the European avant-garde of the 1st half of the 20th century, the experience of encountering Coltrane, and through him, Thelonious Monk. Davis? I don't hear it.

If I misunderstand out of ignorance, or mishear out of tone deafness, please correct me. I'm always eager to learn more about this wonderful music.

Stefan Kac said...

Actually, everything you say is right on. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to word that paragraph (after all, I needed to be able to brag about it in the very next sentence), but I guess I didn't do a very good job anyway. I would certainly agree that there was no substantial direct influence on Ornette's music from either Miles or Coltrane; what I was getting at is not an issue of direct influence at all, so maybe I should have been clearer about that. Let me take another shot.

If you compare So What with any of the stock hard-bop of the mid-to-late 1950's, there are many fewer chord changes (only two, actually), and they each last much longer (both in terms of the number of bars and real time). Conversely, compare Giant Steps with this same repertoire: there are MORE chord changes going by even faster than ever before, and moving in what were then unusual directions. Think about what would happen if we took each of those two extremes and made them more extreme yet: eventually in each case, a breaking point is reached, and to go any further in either direction, you must play free. When I said that Ornette's work represents the "inevitable consequence" of Kind of Blue and Giant Steps, I meant that Ornette anticipated this consequence independently. The others were most certainly on a trajectory, and left to their own devices, would eventually have precipitated free jazz anyway; Ornette, however, was there first. That is a crucial historical detail, but it needs to be explained better than it was in the article, and perhaps also in my original post.

In hindsight, what I think we see in those two albums is the consolidation and intensification of two opposite musical tendencies: Miles' minimalistic tendencies, and Coltrane's maximalistic tendencies (to be clear, those are both with LOWER CASE m's!!!). What if we moved even further toward the extremes? Both extreme minimalism and extreme maximalism seem (to me) to demand a different structural context than mainstream jazz (i.e. head, solo, head; spang-spangalang on the ride cymbal; bass in two or in four) allows for. I think that in both cases, if one were to continue to move towards either extreme (the minimal or the maximal), both paths would ultimately lead to the same place: playing "free" or "out".

Of course, there is a TON of variety in "free" or "out" music, and minimalistic free playing will sound very different than maximalistic free playing. Nonetheless, at the time, it was highly notable that Ornette (or anyone, for that matter) was playing free at all because the concept was so new and untested. It DOES matter WHAT and HOW he was actually playing, and it's not cool to just ignore those details; that's another frequent sin of music journalists that just drives me up the wall. Here, however, the mere concept in the most general sense was also polarizing opinion rather spectacularly. I think that makes it okay to speak in more abstract terms about what he was doing and where it fits into the grand scheme of things musico-historically.

Yaffe totally missed the chance to paint Ornette as having anticipated many of the major innovations of the next several years. In order to do that, he needed to do more than just drop a couple of names: he needed to explain a stylistic trajectory. If it is established that other musicians were on a trajectory towards free playing, Ornette then looks like a visionary, a man ahead of his time. Alternatively, you could argue that he precipitated the spread of free jazz more than he merely anticipated it; that makes him "influential", but that's not exactly the same thing. For the record, I think it's pretty clear that he came up with his broader conceptual ideas independently, and that these ideas truly anticipated something that would have happened anyway. For better or worse, we often coronate people like that simply for being right regardless of what they were right about or whether this matters to anyone; in Ornette's case, at least, I can get on board for the right (i.e. musical) reasons. We are left guessing (especially any novices that might be reading) why Yaffe chose to reference the albums that he did; this is my best guess, and while it's not something I would normally take the time to write about, I think it is a very supportable position. "The Shape of Jazz to Come" is one of the most needlessly pretentious titles in music, but it's at least a little bit more accurate than anyone could have predicted at the time.

Of course, Coltrane actually DID move on to playing "free" eventually, and I don't think it's plausible that this was entirely because of Ornette's influence. What happened was that the maximalism that had always been there eventually lead him (Coltrane) to open-ended forms. Hindsight is 20/20, and taking the historical view, the trajectory is pretty clear; you can kind of see it coming, even from the very beginning of his career (and in case anyone disagrees with that appraisal, listen back to his early work: pretty damn dense and, dare I say, maximal, at least in terms of space or lack thereof; he was gonna go somewhere else at some point!). Too bad Miles DIDN'T really take the concepts behind Kind of Blue to a more extreme, "minimal" place. That would have been cool. Having said that, the quintet with Wayne Shorter to me represents one of the great accomplishments of all human history! I wouldn't trade one for the other, but it's interesting to ponder anyway.

Does that clear everything up? It's nice to know someone is actually reading; it keeps me on my toes!