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 recently1. 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 this time around, however, was the terminological malfeasance committed along the way.

In attempting to put Coleman's musical innovations into historical context, author David 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 presumed good intentions here, 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, but I cannot confirm this. In any case, it is quite obviously a poorly chosen one given that the mode in question already has a Greek name of its own2.

There is perhaps less reason to get worked up over the circle of fifths reference. Though what Yaffe wrote is technically incorrect, we have all seen the term used in this colloquial manner before. Giant Steps is based on a circle of sorts, but it is actually a circle of major thirds, an interval which symmetrically divides the octave and hence lands on only three of the twelve key centers contained in the circle of fifths. Sure, I'm speaking musician-speak because I am one, but how many "average listeners" could phenomenologically confuse one circle for the other at the time Giant Steps was released, when it sounded to most such people like it came from outer space? It's not just that the term "cirlce of fifths" literally refers to something else, it's that this something else was, even in 1959, totally mundane, whereas Giant Steps was simultaneously earth-shattering and profoundly alienating, depending on one's sensibilities.

The misuse of terminology certainly risks detracting from the authority of the article in the eyes of navel-gazers like me, but is there anything more to this? I think that there very clearly is, and that it most likely betrays pretensions to hipness above all else. That is to say that the fatal error in Yaffe's process was not his particular choice of words but rather his choice to invoke technical jargon at all. Considering that he has a PhD in English, I suspect that if clarity were his motive he probably has the writing chops to make good on it. Then again, considering that he is a music critic with a PhD in English, the hipness/clarity (im)balance is totally predictable.

If it had been up to me, I would have eschewed the jargon altogether and instead written something like this:

Both Miles and Coltrane were moving away from the dominant jazz style of the late 1950's, but in quite different directions. In So What, Miles implemented more static harmonies and a relaxed tempo; Coltrane did the opposite in Giant Steps, saturating musical time with novel chord changes and blowing through them at a blistering pace. Later exponents of both tendencies eventually went to such extremes that traditionalists questioned whether this was jazz at all. Some musicians would eventually ask themselves this question too and realize that the short, rigid, repetitive nature of songform-based jazz no longer permitted them to play what they felt. This was the winding path many later took to "free jazz" which relaxed or abandoned such constraints. Coleman's brand of it was, in hindsight, not among the more radical departures, especially vis-a-vis the role of the drummer, but he had helicoptered in so far ahead of everyone else that visionary status was inevitable. At a certain point, all that remained was for those pesky traditionalists to catch up with everyone else.

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 ease that fear is to hire people who simply don't have the technical background at all, but in Yaffe's case as in so many others, the results of that strategy speak for themselves. My explanation is less technical than his, but no one without a strong technical background could have produced it.

I don't think this is by any means too much to expect 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 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 qualified people who would accept most any offer to function in both capacities. What's more, the well-known conflict-of-interest that arises when musicians are charged with publicly chronicling and/or evaluating the work of their peers isn't such a big problem in the case of a figure like Ornette, who doesn't have many peers and won't be working with most of them anyway. I have to think that there are plenty of musician-scholars 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.

Whatever the real reason for Yaffe's slip-up, the larger point is that the jargon was simply uncalled for here: musicians don't need to be told the harmony of So What and non-musicians won't understand if you try to tell them. The only people who actually seem to inhabit a grey area between these two levels of understanding are the critics themselves.

Lest I be seen as taking personally-directed cheap shots purely for sport, I trust that most anyone taking the time to read this knows that "terminological malfeasance" happens all the time. 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). Of the top of my head, the following anecdotes from my college years come most immediately to mind:

•I recall spending most of a class session in Jazz Combo with Phil Hey at the U of MN unpacking 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. You can see the selfsame reductive process at work here that resulted in Giant Steps becoming a Circle of Fifths composition...but seriously, did anyone on the editorial level over at PBS actually listen to Louis Armstrong?

•there is, according to one source of mine, a prominent local writer who frequently confuses rhythm and meter.

•one music-major cohort of mine who took a jazz history class taught through non-music academic department and taken by students from a variety of majors emerged with a laundry list of faux-technical missteps committed by the professor and clear evidence of the students' lack of a musico-technical background that would have made a technical approach valid in any case.

Now it's time to anticipate the inevitable cynical rejoinder to my complaints here: "Who the hell cares, and why?" I would hope that it might 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. Certainly a large quantity of the correspondence I receive here is aimed at correcting small factual errors, and a hell of a lot more people read The Nation than read my blog. Many have remarked on the "gotcha" mentality that modern social media platforms encourage, but as the errors add up, it's not unreasonable 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?

Even if you think lapses in usage are truly harmless (I would disagree), it's still not right, or at least not as right as it could be, and the fact that self-interest is not sufficient even for commercial publications and professional writers to clean up their collective act is telling. I think that 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 me3.


1. The article is now online, which it was not at the time this post was written.

2. At the risk of being over-thorough in my revision here, I can report that today Google returned only thirteen results for "minor Mixolydian mode" and one fewer than that for "minor Mixolydian modes," the latter including a reference to this post on another blog and the original article itself (and NOT my blog; that hurts, Google). Of the remaining pages, only this one uses the term as Yaffe does; the rest are merely lists of terms and topics where the words occur in this order by virtue of having been alphabetized. This lone corroboration was posted on a message board in 2001, so technically I could/should have been able to find it in 2007. Perhaps it is a parochialism issuing forth from the Balkan clarinet community? Frankly I don't think it really matters: if it was not truly an authorial boo-boo, it was still an editorial one, and this is the larger point.

3. The final insult: The Nation did amazingly enough publish two letters regarding Yaffe's piece. One offers some minor factual (not terminological) corrections; the other, longer screed by one John Provost is a meandering, faux-poetic, personal reflection on a 2004 Ornette concert. I'm willing to accept whatever abuse the more sanguine among us might have for the sentiments I expressed in this post, but if we're going to absolve authors and editors for their less-than-ideal terminological compromises based on space constraints, then it becomes ever more perplexing why a letter like this was printed. It certainly is more perplexing even to me than Yaffe's appeal to jargon, for which the explanations actually are too-obvious.

Here, according to the sent folder of my email account, is what I sent to The Nation that May 29:

Thank you so very much for your recent piece on Ornette Coleman (David Yaffe, Art of the Improviser, May 14). Yaffe should, however, be embarrassed at having used a made up term ("minor Mixolydian") in the course of referencing one of the most famous, most simple, and most famously simple jazz standards in history, Miles Davis's So What. A more musically competent writer would not only have known that So What uses the Dorian mode, but could have managed a perfectly decent explanation of Coleman's early 1960's innovations without resorting to jargon at all, hence making to article more comprehensible to non-musicians.


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!

Stefan Kac said...

10 April, 2016

The post has been/is being substantially edited. Long passages have been rewritten, including my demonstration of non-technical music criticism. The purpose throughout is to clean up the writing, not to change the original sentiment.