Friday, October 29, 2010

Harmolodics: Meeting Ornette Coleman

I don't remember the first time I met Ornette but it may have been when Bill Laswell brought me to his apartment in Soho to see some pieces by an artist that Ornette was promoting. Ornette was soft spoken and relaxed but he also seemed kind of otherwordly to me as if he had access to whole ranges and depths of experience that most people could barely imagine, and he probably did!

I have little recollection of the art or the artist, who was there also, except that there were a number of pieces laid out on the floor. I believe it was African or strongly African influenced, and I sensed a Shamanic flavor to them. Bill purchased a couple of them that night.

At one point Ornette mentioned that he'd never had an album of his recorded to his standard of Harmolodics.

Harmolodics is the musical philosophy of jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and is therefore associated primarily with the jazz avant-garde and the free jazz movement, although its implications extend beyond these limits.

As an engineer who had wanted to record Ornette for a number of years, I was thinking, what's the problem?! Let's get into the studio and make a harmolodics record! I'm sure Bill was having a similar reaction.

Ornette mentioned that he'd never even heard a harmolodics recording except for one rehearsal recording by Frank Sinatra which no longer existed. After the successful sonic documentation of the Master Musicians of Jajouka with Bill, I felt confident recording music that supposedly couldn't be recorded.

Out loud I told him something to the effect that it was definitely possible to make a harmolodics record and we should just do one. I wasn't at all worried that I had no idea what constituted a harmolodics record. I used my Sherlock Holmes-like deductive reasoning to infer that it must be possible to record one otherwise he wouldn't keep trying. And he actually had heard one before - the Sinatra rehearsal. I therefore reasoned that the problem must lie with Ornette not being able to communicate his harmolodic vision or the engineer's inability (in Coleman's view) to successfully translate that vision into an audio format.

The primary intention of High Velocity Sound Engineering is to successfully interpret and translate the artist's vision into an audio product. I didn't know to convince Ornette that Bill and I could pull this off so I just told him that with a high amount of focused attention, and clear communication, we could get him the harmolodics recording he had yet to realize.

This conversation and challenge led me to an investigation of: exactly what is Harmolodics?
I have yet to find an adequate definition. The one at Wikipedia currently says:

Coleman defines harmolodics as: "the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group." Applied to the particulars of music, this means that "harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas."

quoted from: Coleman, Ornette. Prime Time for Harmolodics. Down Beat, July 1983, pp. 54-55

The physical and mental of logic to make a musical sensation of unison?? Sounds to me like he's saying that it's music intended to engender a religious or mystical experience of unity. This is all very nice and I agree that this is what real music can do and constitutes a noble aim but how does that make harmolodics different from other magically potent music? For instance, I almost always get a "musical sensation of unison" whenever I hear Stairway to Heaven. Does that make it harmolodic? I don't think so.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

Harmolodics seeks to free musical compositions from any tonal center, allowing harmonic progression independent of traditional European notions of tension and release. Harmolodics may loosely be defined as an expression of music in which harmony, movement of sound, and melody all share the same value.

The first sentence makes sense, to me. The second one, saying that those musical constituents "all share the same value," sounds like vague, poetic gobbledygook ( to use a technical expression). What scale of measurement gets used to place valuation on "movement of sound?" Decibels?? So then, how could a melody share the same decibel value as movement of sound? It doesn't make sense. Maybe I just don't get it. Anyone who does, feel free to enlighten me in the comments section.

I once directly asked Ornette to explain Harmolodics to me. He went into an elaborate musical theory (that didn't resemble any of the definitions above) that involved the transposition of notes from one instrument to another. I was really trying hard to follow what he was saying and at one point I thought I got it.

"So harmolodics is the melody that the harmonics of various instruments make," I said to him.

"No, no, no," Ornette replied, "Harmolodics is music intended to bring out the fundamental of the listener without modulation."

The fundamental in music mean the root note of the chord. The fundamental in an E chord is the note E. It also means the root frequency of an instrument's sound wave. When a sax plays an E note an octave above middle C, the frequency of that note is 659.26 Hz assuming the use of the common A = 440 Hz tuning calibration. But that E note on the sax generates a range of harmonics all mathematically related in whole number ratios to the E's fundamental frequency of 659.26 Hz. So, in effect, every note has its own inner chord. These harmonics are not at equal amplitudes (ie volume) but make up their own mix determined by the instrument and how it's played. This mix of harmonics within a note is known as the instruments timbre ( pronounced tamber, we're not cutting down trees here) and explains why an E played on a saxophone sounds different than an E played on a trumpet.

Modulation means change. Coleman's intention for Harmolodic music is to bring out the essential nature of the listener without changing it. In my estimation, this appears completely congruent to the notion of discovering and aligning to one's True Will. Still not a concrete definition of Harmolodics, but perhaps it can only get defined musically?

Back at Ornette's apartment that night after the discussion about harmolodic recordings, he said that what he was trying to do with his music was conquer death. Ornette said that whenever he told this to people they often had an adverse reaction so he stopped mentioning it. I told him that I had no problem with this idea, that it was, in fact, right up my alley.

Other musicians I've worked with that fall under the Harmolodics umbrella include James "Blood" Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I had the pleasure of traveling to India with Shannon. Bill Laswell brought us. Me, to work with him recording classical Indian violinist L. Shankar and other traditional musicians, and Shannon, to explore new parts of the Earth and religious and social culture. Shannon is one of the most consciously shamanic musicians that I've ever worked with. Blood is very shamanic also, more informally but just as richly via the blues.

Stay tuned ...


  1. Oz, this is very interesting and very much confusing. From all I read I was left with the impression that Ornette wants to record mostly harmonics, which when combined and mixed together will be enough for the listener to able to deduct the fundamental and therefore understand the music...
    Is that a bit too crazy?

  2. Arno, that sounds similar to Harmolodics being the melody harmonics play which Ornette said was not it at all. If you could quote the source for your understanding, that might be helpful. IMO, Harmolodics doesn't require the listener to deduce anything.

    Ornette also designed Harmolodic clothes. I believe the jacket he's wearing in the photo is one example.

  3. Interesting. I think I have a lot to learn before I am ready to grasp a concept such as this one. Especially now that I learn about Harmolodic clothes, I don't know what to say... other than the jacket looks really cool... :)

  4. "harmony, movement of sound, and melody all share the same value" ...

    I have taken this to mean that each of those three elements may be treated as being of equal value in one's improvisations based on a theme ... which is a very philboyd-studgey way to put it ...

    that given a melody, rather than being restricted to the chord changes or the beat or the key center, you can work equally usefully off the melody, off the melody's internal rhythm (new melodies with similar rhythms, displacements of that same rhythm), or off the harmonies suggested by the melody (treating them as if they WERE the melody). That all of these elements have equal value to the improvisor.

    Not sure how to interpret this in, say, a fashion setting. Maybe if I was more familiar with fashion ...

    I have also seen Ornette and/or his band say that a guitar might behave like a bass, or any instrument might behave like any other instrument, swapping roles and thus creating textural and timbral variation within what might otherwise be a fairly dull blob of forward-motion groove-improv.

    Can't say for sure that any of this is what Ornette himself means, but it has all been useful to me in my own playing.