Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens

English linguist Michael Halliday developed a theory called Systemic Functional Linguistics.  As one online encyclopedia states, quoting Halliday himself:

“For Halliday, language is a ‘meaning potential’; by extension, he defines linguistics as the study of ‘how people exchange meanings by ‘languaging”’

Howard Mandel, in the liner notes to an Ornette CD, recounted how Ornette liked to tell a story about asking a grade school class what music was.  A little girl answered that it is when you put your feelings in sound.  Ornette liked that answer. It points toward the view of music as feeling/meaning potential.

A definition of Systemic Functional Linguistics summarizes the theory (in basically anti-Chomskyan “universal grammar” terms) by saying:

“it places the function of language as central (what language does, and how it does it), in preference to more structural approaches, which place the elements of language and their combinations as central.”

Discussing the significance of Halliday’s linguistic theory, the same online encyclopedia goes on to state:

“Halliday, in a sense, ‘liberated’ the dimension of choice from structure and made it the central organising dimension of this theory. In other words, where many approaches to linguistic description place structure and the syntagmatic axis in the foreground, Hallidean systemic functional theory adopts the paradigmatic axis as its point of departure”

Ornette’s “Harmolodics” musical theory was often expressed in terms of transposition or translation from underlying compositional ideas or feelings — this is a lot like the “paradigmatic axis” in linguistic theory.  “A paradigmatic relationship refers to the relationship between words that are the same parts of speech and which can be substituted for each other in the same position within a given sentence. A syntagmatic relationship refers to the relationship a word has with other words that surround it.”  Leo Selivan, “Two axes of word relationships.”  See also the graphic here.  In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, (“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004), Coleman said:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

He continued, emphasizing how Harmolodics was about the exchange of meaning through a new musical language:

“In fact, the music that I’ve been writing for thirty years and that I call Harmolodics is like we’re manufacturing our own words, with a precise idea of what we want those words to mean to people.”

Harmolodics might be seen as evincing a super-Platonic “notion that empirical reality can ‘participate’ in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through” the spatio-temporal reality and appear in it, while recognizing that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.” This fits quite closely with Systemic Functional Language as being the exchange of potential ideas/meanings.  But rather rather than just multiple choice linguistics, Ornette permits just about any selection (transposition) within a compositions — and the syntax is flexible too, up to a point.

If Ornette’s Harmolodics seems imprecise, it is fair to ask whether demands for further precision are normative.  Halliday has indicated that “grammar is viewed as a resource rather than as a set of rules . . . .”  Ornette’s music tried to tear down walls and open doors, to make fuller use of the resources of music.  He always emphasized an expansion of meaningful expression, not a contraction or a limit on possible meanings.  In the Derrida interview, Coleman rhetorically restates the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity:

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

Psychoanalysis describes this same phenomenon as the acceptance of (pre-existing) language colonizing us.

When writing about Ornette’s music in the past, I have largely stuck with his own description of his music as being tied to the so called freedom movement or civil rights movement.  But I go further to claim that Ornette’s music represented an important adaptation of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to music, in the sense of being a meeting of theory and action — more than just technique but also more engaged and active than pure theory.  People like Mark Gridley have written about this sort of approach as a “misconception” (though not responding specifically to my Rousseau argument).  Of course, it is possible here to accuse Gridley of being the one who has misconceived the situation.  The underlying divergence results from Gridley viewing “free jazz” in the reductionist sense of being a technique, and he offers the revisionist definition of that technique as meaning, specifically (and only), totally “spontaneous” performance.  In contrast to Gridley’s view, which is academic pedantry mostly as a defense of the power of “jazz historians” and “jazz teachers” (of which he counts himself) against “journalists” to define the proper meaning of certain historical events and musicological developments — Gridley’s article reads almost like an example of religious dogmatism straight out of Pierre Bourdieu‘s Language and Symbolic Power!  Or, as two quotes from Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli‘s Free Jazz/Black Power establish, Gridley is just making self-serving and hypocritical assertions:

“When the dominant ideology advocates the separation of art and politics, it intervenes in the aesthetic field to condemn all ideological intervention in the aesthetic field!”


“When critics swear they are only speaking of musical facts, they are lying to themselves and misunderstanding all that is determined by the dominant ideology of a capitalist society and Western culture in their own aesthetic criteria and conception of art, in what they consider musical or not, etc.”

Sure, Gridley has a point that “free jazz” relies on certain techniques that pre-date that term and the movement it describes, and certainly not all “free jazz” performers explicitly or consciously saw or described their music as part of a freedom/civil rights movement or any related one, but Gridley’s views also seem drawn from simply a different kind of historical reductionism that refuses a sociological or social-political perspective on the question of the meaning of the music or of implicit, perhaps unconscious or disavowed perceptions of the artists. Frankly, Gridley’s discussion of Ornette Coleman runs counter to some of Coleman’s own descriptions of what his goals were, which alone is enough to throw Gridley’s conclusion into doubt.  (This is epitomized by Gridley’s quotation of Harold Batiste offered in a way all too congruent with common stylistic double standards, which recognize the accomplishments of “free jazz” players only to the extent that they can “prove” themselves in traditional settings, without expecting the same of “traditional” players).  Ornette has said, for instance:

“Emotion has always been far more interesting to me than technique . . . . *** There’s a social quality in music, and a relationship between music and society that’s always been important.”

I disagree with Gridley at a pretty basic level as to what does or does not constitute “free jazz”.  But I do agree with him that “[f]ree jazz did not originate in a striving for racial freedom and equality during the 1960s.”  Rather, “free jazz” arose in the 1950s as an extension of revolutionary “Enlightenment” thought going back at least as far as Rousseau, in part, but not exclusively, accounting for the uniquely racialized and oppressive social circumstances at the time.  Reference here what art historian Linda Nochlin once said:

“art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

What does this digression about Gridley have to do with Systemic Functional Linguistics?  In much the same way that Halliday’s theory emphasizes paradigmatic choices conveying meaning, Ornette emphasized transposition of notes by individual players (as a way even to loosen syntax restrictions).  In contrast, other linguistic theories like “universal grammar” emphasize syntagmatic choices without as much concern for paradigmatic choices which are more structurally determined, which is fairly close to Gridley’s insistence that “free jazz” break established relationships of notes to those around them.  In a way, Ornette’s Harmolodics is defined in opposition to the sort of thinking underlying both chord-based musical theory and chomskyan universal/generative grammar.  Ornette’s concern with (essentially) the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis is partly an opposition to — or at least disinterest in — chomskyan ideas about learning (generating) grammar.  Ornette’s ideas start to look a lot closer to the “critical pedagogy” practices of Paulo Freire.  So, I think it is safe to conclude that Gridley rejects certain commentary about the music of Ornette Coleman on purely ideological grounds, attempting to undermine Ornette’s intentions by depoliticizing them in order to neutralize their revolutionary sociopolitical impact.

It would be wrong to insist that Ornette’s “Harmolodics” are a direct counterpart of Systemic Functional Linguistics — the two are most certainly different theories.  But, rather, there are aspects of linguistics that can help understand Harmolodics, including its importance and its theoretical gaps and limitations.  As a corollary, it is interesting to consider the history of linguistics, and the battles for recognition in that discipline, with those in music and in jazz specifically.  I think one of the most continually fascinating aspects of Ornette’s music is they way it retains some syntax as a way of preserving paradigmatic freedom — helping to at least lessen the “Tyranny of Structurelessness,”  the risks of “melodic obsessions, personal cliches, idea or sound associations, and other autonomisms” (Carles & Comolli, Free Jazz/Black Power), and the “totally free piece, end of concert” problem (articulated by Paul Bley in The Wire magazine, Sept. 2007) — and mediating compositional syntax and paradigmatic improvisation in a kind of co-equal and utopian “dual power” framework.