Monday 16 April 2007

Harmolodic People

Harmolodics has always been hard to define but easy to feel

check out our (growing!) list of harmolodic videos on YouTube

we have >other playlists growing there also

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OK so what is harmolodics?


"Harmolodics is a music theory developed by jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Associated primarily with the jazz avant-garde and the free jazz movement, 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 general effect is that music achieves an immediately open expression, without being constrained by tonal limitations, rhythmic pre-determination, or harmonic rules."

from :

"If you sat in the studio with Ornette and began to play, the first thing he would do is ask a question. "It’s fantastic that you hear it that way", is one of his favorite comments. He spends his musical time asking questions and looking for greater understanding, while explaining and offering answers.

"World Music has come to the attention of the American public in a broader sense in recent years. Ornette Coleman, always an avid ethnomusicologist, has been at the avant garde of this effort. Musicians, as well as musical ideas of Africa, India, Native America and Japan have been a part of Harmolodics for twenty years. Hip-Hop, the art rock of Lou Reed, and Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are part of the tapestry too. How can all of these divergent styles make any sense together? What is Harmolodics and how does it work? [...]

"[...] Ornette Coleman is the creator of a concept of music called "harmolodic," a musical form which is equally applicable as a life philosophy. The richness of harmolodics derives from the unique interaction between the players. Breaking out of the prison bars of rigid meters and conventional harmonic or structural expectations, harmolodic musicians improvise equally together in what Coleman calls compositional improvisation, while always keeping deeply in tune with the flow, direction and needs of their fellow players. In this process, harmony becomes melody becomes harmony.

"Ornette describes it as "Removing the caste system from sound." On a broader level, harmolodics equates with the freedom to be as you please, as long as you listen to others and work with them to develop your own individual harmony. [...]

"[...] Harmolodics is simply a way of asking questions.

"Harmolodics is a system of music theory. It provides a method of analyzing music from a non-hierarchical perspective, designed to break down artificial boundaries which inhibit interpretation in traditional musical thought. While traditional theory analyses harmony by taking a given melody, generating a bass line contrapuntally, and analyzing harmony based on the chord progression generated by the two, Harmolodic theory allows analysis to be based on any voice, and any aspect of that voice (rhythm, pitch or harmony), at any time. The role of each voice remains truly independent, allowing the player- or the listener- to interpret it as predominant, or "lead."

"Harmolodic theory is way of understanding what you hear. The music of many other cultures, particularly non-western cultures, employs a different set of conventions to understand, or attach meaning, to the parts of a musical composition. Ornette Coleman’s "free" way of playing jazz is uninhibited, but not random."

A Personal Miscellany:

"Harmolodics is a system he [Ornette] describes: “Music is not a style. Music is ideas. In any normal style, you have to play certain notes in certain places. You play in that style only and try to make people believe that style is more important than other styles. Which removes you from the idea. With harmolodics you go directly to the idea."

from The Ornette Coleman Mailing List:

"Melody, harmony, and rhythm are equal. At any moment, a note can be the root of a chord, the 3rd of another, the flatted 5th of another, etc. The one beat can be the three beat of another cadence. If musicians are well enough in tune with each other they can play what they will, and it will all fit together. For Ornette it is easy. For most others, it is hard."

from an interview/article in The Wire (Issue 257 / July '05):

Q: Why do you think that so many of the bebop musicians didn't understand what you were doing?

O: I wouldn't say it was just the bebop musicians, it was musicians, period.

Because I found out that in Western culture you have the Bb, the Eb, and the F instruments — those are the four dominant transpositions. And yet one instrument has to transpose those other three notes for it to sound like one idea more than four different harmonies — and that's the piano. So all of a sudden I started understanding the role of the piano. [Plays a note on the piano] The note of the saxophone is different from the sound of the instrument. The note you hear is not the sound of the instrument. It's the idea of the notes that you hear being applied to the instrument. To this very day, I've been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments. I call them harmolodics. So when I found that out, I started analysing what people call melody for ideas. But melody and ideas are not confined to any instrument... It's going to happen, but no one has come to the conclusion that you don't have to transpose an idea. But if you want to play with the piano... if you want to play an idea you have to do it.


Coleman's discussion of transposing instruments gets him deep into harmolodic theory. The term 'harmolodics' first appeared in print in his sleevenotes to Skies Of America in 1972. It's a synthesis of 'harmony', 'movement' and 'melody'. Sceptics say that Ornette is a poet more than a theorist, and certainly when he began to play alto sax, he didn't realise that it's a transposing instrument — a C on sheet music for alto denotes a sounding Eb. On alto, like almost all woodwind instruments, we call the scale made by uncovering the holes one by one from the bottom up, the scale of C — even though in terms of sound, the scale begins on another note (Bb for clarinet, Eb for alto sax, and so on). As all these instruments have the same arrangement of holes, it makes sense to transpose the music, not the fingering. The "four dominant transpositions" Ornette refers to are typified by clarinet (Bb); flute, oboe and all string instruments (C); alto sax (Eb); and French horn (F) respectively.

As we'll see, Ornette seems to derive almost mystical significance from the fact of transposition and apparent unisons that result — when piano and alto, say, both play C on the sheet music. Many writers are convinced this is a simple misunderstanding. But Coleman associate John Snyder, quoted in Peter Niklas Wilson's excellent Ornette Coleman: His Life And Music, argues that when he refers to "unison", he doesn't just mean "the same pitch": "His unison is any group of notes that suddenly some together and have a purity of sound." As Niklas Wilson writes, the standards of Western music theory hardly apply to Coleman's musical thinking. Maybe when Ornette says here that "It's going to happen, but no one has come to the conclusion that you don't have to transpose an idea. But if you want to play with the piano... if you want to play an idea you have to do it", he's attacking the Western concept of fixed tuning — whether equal temperament or some other system. Harmolodics, in contrast, embraces, flexible intonation, and so playing with a piano will be a restriction. Clearly Ornette has extreme sensitivity to nuances of timbre, and this may explain why he insists on distinguishing the sound and the note.


Believe me, the only sound that is wrong is one that doesn't fit. That's the only one that's wrong. It's not right or wrong because of the theory. [Plays more intervals on the piano]

Do you think a lot of jazz players are too bound up by theory?

I didn't say that, you said that.

But you think they might be.

I didn't say that either. But I tell you what I do think. I think that the interval-structure for a unison, according to the instrument that you play, let's say it's a piano... [plays flat fifth and major third interval, repeats question 'which is higher?'] How is anyone going to learn to play music if they know it by numbers? You can't.

But a lot jazz is taught by harmony.

That's harmony's numbers.

You reject harmony then?

It's not that I reject harmony, I reject having to be restricted because of ideas. This is C — what note is it in the bass clef? It's an E [reading the treble clef as if it were a bass clef].

That's right.

This is an E and G in the bass clef, and in the treble clef it's C and E. And this goes to tell you that harmony, unison and keys are not based upon ideas, and they're not based upon mathematics — they're based upon sound.

Q: Could you summarise harmolodics by saying that? If somebody asks, 'In a sentence, what is harmolodics?'

O: Harmolodics is where all ideas — all relationships and harmony — are equal in unison. Say you were talking somewhere, and someone came in and started a different conversation with you, and you started your conversation with whatever they were talking about — that doesn't mean that whatever you were talking about before has left your mind. It only means that you've decided to answer this person. So therefore, to be more precise, how can you tell the meaning of something just because of the sound of your voice?

All About Jazz:

[Bassist Charlie} Haden’s recollection provides firm insight into the early days of the Coleman quartet. “I had been going to a lot of after-hours sessions,” Haden explains, “and I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried to do that, musicians would become very upset. In order to bring them back in after my solo, I’d have to play the melody so they knew where I was. When I met Ornette, the night I heard him, that’s what he was doing. He was playing on the inspiration of a song and modulating from one key to another. When we played together for the first time, I thought ‘Man! Finally I’ve got permission to do what I’ve been doing!’”


Coleman’s songbook is ever-expanding, and one rarely sees a different Coleman configuration playing timeworn tunes (though some chestnuts are re-arranged for new groups)—the reason lies partly in his concept of instrumental music as music written for a specific set of variables. Variation, too, is a key to Coleman’s music, for he often conceives from the flatted fifth instead of a tonic, for him allowing more sonic space in which to work. “The way music is taught in Western culture is from mathematics,” Coleman explains, “not sound. D and F is a minor third and C and F is a fourth and anybody knows that four is more than three. But the minor third is higher and there are many things like that in tempered music. I understand why classical musicians have such an attitude, because they’re restricted to a certain interval, they think that makes them Classical. It just makes them repeat what they’re reading.”

A crucial tenet of Coleman’s compositional approach is Harmolodics. “Harmolodics means to me that the freest tempered interval is the minor third and a chromatic scale,” Coleman says. “They are tones that are in unison that, when played collectively, they become other sounds. But there’s a part of Harmolodics that I’m realizing is present, that if I speak to you and you hear what I’m saying, and I know you understand it, you’re hearing more than what I’m saying. I call that ‘Sound Grammar.’ I believe that sound itself has a grammar that’s different than language or anything else; if it wasn’t you wouldn’t have so many languages. The future of music is basically that sound is the concept of grammar. It has information, and this information is shared with others.”

from the Austin Chronicle:

AC: Much has been made of the telepathy of the musicians you played with in this early quartet. It always reminded me of a trapeze act without a net. How do you rehearse something like that, how do you prepare to play Harmolodically?

OC: I've only had two real good Harmolodic bands... one was in '75, the other in '95. The one in '75 was teenagers and they had just really started on the instruments, so I had a first opportunity to assure Harmolodics with them, and the second Harmolodic band was made up of people who had been playing classical music. To answer your question, one of the things I do when I hire someone into my band is to hold classes about Harmolodics. I write out a lesson and teach it to them, then show them how it works and see if they can apply that to improvising. That's how I've always assured knowledge about Harmolodics, not only with people in my band but people who have studied with me.


AC: I was pleasantly surprised to see a piano player, Geri Allen, on your new Sound Museum recordings. This is the first time in quite a while that you have worked with a pianist. Does this pose a problem for you?

OC: Not at all. To me, the piano is just an added sound. It's a basic instrument that had been invented for people to know how to play tempered music in unison. But in this form of playing non-tempered music.... for instance, did you ever hear the musicians from Jajouka?

AC: I've heard your work with them, yes.

OC: You know, they play unison, and they all play their own notes. That's a very advanced form of unison. The synthesizer has the same property concept. You can take the synthesizer and change the frequency of any sound. So, basically flat and sharp and natural are just time signatures -- they're not profound ways of getting to a musical idea. I mean, two saxophone players are playing the same note, you have to agree on the same frequency for the sound to be in tune. But if you're playing by yourself, if an emotion that comes to you or through you reminds you of some sound that you heard, then you can use that sound in an expression. You're not gonna be put in jail if you try it. When I hear Eastern music, any music, that doesn't have to conform to any given temper or unison, it usually sounds very ancient, and also very new. I think that's why when you hear the young kids that are playing bebop these days, it doesn't sound as pure and as interesting, because all they're doing is repeating the melody and trying to play solos based on the changes. The people who wrote the music of those days, they didn't have to think that way, it was all one.

AC: In a few decades, you've gone from being an outcast to a living legend. How do you view your place in musical history?

OC: Well, I don't think it's any different than anyone who's done anything for humanity. Imagine if everybody was lazy, nothing would ever get done.

from a MetalJazz interview
with drummer and Ornette's
son, Denardo Coleman:

Q: Your father gave you your first set of drums at age 6, and you made your first album with him, in a trio with Charlie Haden, in 1966, at age 10. As a musician, how do you find your relationship with Ornette has changed?

D: It hasn’t changed a whole lot. ’Cause the way he talks about music today is how he talked about it back then. Hopefully I’ve improved a little.

Q: How does he communicate his ideas to his musicians?

D: He’ll say, “Okay, that might’ve been a minor third, but if you thought about it coming from this other key, it would’ve been a dominant seventh. If it was a dominant seventh, then it would’ve gone really nicely into this other thing.” He’ll break it down theoretically, and then he’ll play it. So in that way he’s like a scientist — you know, like breaking down the genetic codes.

Q: Many people would be surprised by that. He has a reputation for being a “free” musician, and the music sounds so natural.

D: His method has the effect of not only giving you information, but then maybe taking you out of the preconceived zone that you might be in, so that the music becomes even more natural.

Q: Does he write things out?

D: Oh yeah. Sometimes he’ll get a manuscript book for each musician, and write various things in it — exercises or . . . [He hesitates here, as if exercise, like style, might be a word Ornette doesn’t care for.] It would be kind of like laying out a natural progression of examples. One might have to do with dealing with a key or dealing with chords. My father loves to go through, looking at these various examples, how you can really look at the notes differently, and the combination of notes differently. It’s almost like language [Ornette’s 1987 album was called In All Languages], in the sense that even though you may see a word on paper, it could be used in so many different ways depending on the context, or how it’s being used in terms of the inflection. So all of a sudden, you may have a sentence that takes the passage it came from into a whole different place. He opens you up to expanding not only your vocabulary but also what you can hear.

Q: Sounds like Derrida’s deconstruction — kind of difficult. How long does it take a musician to get spontaneous with the theory?

D: It doesn’t take that long. Because if you get with him one time, he will reveal something that starts to open up a door that you didn’t realize was there. Just that revelation breaks everything down for you, breaks the lock. Then how far you take it, that’s a different matter.

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Saturday 7 April 2007

Cold Night for Alligators

It's been a month since my last post and i'm still thinking of that same song...

It's a cold
Night for alligators
It's a cold night fo' dogs

Choke on their barkin
When they see alligator persons
In the bog and fog

on YouTube, see our "Favorites" etc at