What Is Harmolodics

What is “Harmolodics”? Well, it is the term that Ornette Coleman used to describe his concept for composing music.  He wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

One might still wonder what he really means by the term despite that “definition”.  Ornette’s guitarist Bern Nix equated “Harmolodics” to counterpoint.  Counterpoint is a concept established in European music.

Jean Philippe Rameau is recognized as the founder of tonal harmonic theory—the theory developed first to account for music of the eigteenth century, later extended to ninteenth-century repertories.  Musicians have been trained for the last two hundred years to perceive music in Rameau’s terms—as sequences of chords—and thus his formulations seem to us self-evident.  Before Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie [Treatise on Harmony] (1722), theories and pedagogical  methods dealt principally with two aspects of music: coherence over time (mode) and the channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices (counterpoint).”

Susan McClary, “Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound” in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature Volume 16) (1985).

Ornette’s music often expressed an extremely egalitarian relationship between polyphonic voices.  In other words, it indeed sounded like it shared many of the goals of counterpoint.  And yet, he had essentially no formal music training, in counterpoint or anything else.  So while he was concerned with a return to pre-Rameau concerns with “channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices” in general, he didn’t follow any of the specific rules of counterpoint.  The idea of keeping all elements precisely equal is a newer idea in counterpoint.  Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote “Kontra-Punkte” in 1953, which he described as keeping all the voices equal.  But Ornette’s approach was more concerned with establishing a melody that unified the performances of multiple musicians who had great freedom over other musical parameters like harmony.  Though very much like Stockhausen, he was very interested in giving musicians meaningful choices —“positive freedom”—not just eliminating a few explicit prohibitions while leaving in place engrained habits of thoughts.  Ornette once pondered in an interview:

“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?”

(“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).  This was is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  It also represented a rejection of hierarchical social formations in favor of a more Rousseauian conception with strong Anarchist tendencies along the lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  Put another way, the project that is and was “Harmolodics” can be compared with Paulo Freire‘s statement about “critical pedagogy”, “Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”

The zen monk Ejo Takata had a keisaku (a wooden stick with a flat end used to strike meditating zen students lapsing in concentration) that was engraved on the striking end with characters that said, “I can’t teach you anything.  Learn by yourself—you know!”  I like to think that, on its face, “Harmolodics” involved some kind of similar appeal to primordial knowledge.  Of course, Ornette would never hit people with sticks!  His approach was much more like that of “critical pedagogy”.  But one of the enigmas about him was that his compositions were profoundly violent, in their attacks on both the objective/symbolic violence and the systemic/structural violence of the hegemonic culture — just as violent as Gandhi.  On the other hand, “Harmolodics” also involved unstated influence, and one of the things that Ornette’s compositions accomplished was to establish a framework for judgements as to value equivalencies of different musical elements.  This is very similar to the way the origins of financial accounting and monetary systems involved establishing a framework for equating the values of different commodities.  Here it is a matter of establishing value equivalencies for elements like melody, harmony and rhythm, and the various contributions of individual performers.  Ornette had a much looser and democratic way of approaching that question than most contemporaries.  Though there were still boundaries, mostly established through selection of performers (i.e., deciding who is included and who is excluded from the group), rehearsal format (i.e., the settling of pre-performance “debate”), and the like.

See also “Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens”