Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ornette and Synergetics

From early on, I had a wish to work with Ornette Coleman, iconoclastic composer, and one of the true High Priests of the saxophone. I’ll explain why.

Learning the craft of audio engineering sparked a thirst in me for all kinds of knowledge. Going on the road mixing bar bands at night gave a lot of free time in the afternoons for study. I began with basic text books on physics, electronics, sound engineering, and acoustics. Discovering wave propagation theory, how sound waves “interfere” both constructively and destructively with one another, gave some valuable clues for getting a better sound in the acoustically challenged clubs that I worked in.

For some reason, the study of basic geometry and other apparently unrelated subjects like quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and mathematics became important to me. I checked out loads of books from the library whenever we were home. To instill a sense of discipline, purpose and form, I outlined a course of study which I called Space-Time University.

I remember telling a friend at the time that I didn’t really know why I was studying geometry but that it seemed necessary to do so. Sure enough, I found out just a few weeks later.

Robert Fripp, the renowned guitarist and erstwhile student of Gurdjieff, used to write a column in Musician magazine back in the ‘80’s. In one of them he talked about producing an album for The Roches. He wrote that while mixing it, he approached the sound field as a 3 dimensional matrix which could represent the music as geometric forms.

The width dimension in the mix is defined by the panorama postion, ie where the pan pot is set. Your frequency range represents the height dimension - low frequencies at the bottom, highs at the top. The depth dimension is determined by the dynamic range. The quieter sounds are further away, louder sounds more upfront. As an aside, this is one reason why over-compressed music sounds so flat, the dynamic range becomes severely reduced, (“squashed” as we say in the biz) so that the track ends up with little or no depth.

Discovering that sound has a definable geometry was like a light turning on for me. I began to realize that the sound field has it’s own architecture. I could approach mixing music as an aesthetic designer of space in the same way that a sculptor or architect would.

Some time later, I got into R. Buckminster Fuller’s energetic system of geometry called Synergetics which he claimed was far more practically applicable in the real world than our standard Euclidian geometry with its abstract axioms. I agree with Fuller about this, Synergetics seems several steps beyond and much more functional than regular geometry. I know that I was having a lot of strange dreams, reminiscent of tapping into alien Parallel Universes when I went on a retreat to study it.

The integration of geometry and philosophy in
a single conceptual system providing a
common language
and accounting for both the
physical and metaphysical.
Synergetics 251.50

Synergy gets defined as that mysterious principle that makes “the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts. “

Synergetic geometry is responsible for the Geodesic Dome which led to portable housing and other architectural innovations including the Houston Astrodome and all the subsequent Coliseum like domed sports mega structures like the Kingdome in Seattle where I saw the Rolling Stones in 1981.

So I began applying Fuller’s whole systems approach to sound engineering. I started to view the musical geometric forms in the mix along the lines of Synergetics rather than the Euclidean approach that Fripp wrote about.

Not too long after this, geologically speaking, I saw the documentary Ornette Coleman: Ornette Made In America produced by an esoterically minded theater group in Texas called the Caravan of Dreams led by a rascal guru (according to the sensationalistic press) known as Johnny Dolphin. Dolphin is also influenced by Buckminster Fuller, among others. He’s most well-known to the public for the Biosphere II experimental project which he initiated.

The film was based on the premiere of a piece composed by Ornette Coleman called Skies of America for the opening of a new cultural and performing arts center in Fort Worth, Texas. One comment in the film inspired a years long dream to record Ornette that eventually came true. He said that he wanted to make music that sounded like Fuller’s Synergetics geometry. It kind of floored me because I wanted to mix music like Fuller’s geometry.



  1. Very interesting Oz. Can't wait to read your next post.
    Jon Pratlett - student of Bucky, living in Sydney.

  2. Oz, great story! Have you seen the videos we put on-line about Synergetics: Synergetics Collaborative on YouTube?

    In my new blog I recently wrote about Open Educational Resources (OER) and Bucky. Do you know of any good OER resources on audio engineering?

  3. Thanks, JP. And thanks for the links syntropy, I'll check them out. I've not heard of OER resources on audio engineering, but this is my first exposure to the idea of OER. I'll look at your blog, also

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