Category Archives: Music

Jacques Attali – Bruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music]

Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16)

Jacques AttaliBruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16] (Brian Massumi trans., University of Minnesota Press 1985 [1977])

Jacques Attali’s Bruits [Noise] was first published in French in 1977, then in English translation in 1985.  It presents a long-term history of musical development, based on Attali’s novel theory of distinct stages of historical development in music.

As historiography, this bears much resemblance to other characteristically French stuff from back in the day as Henri Lefebvre‘s Critique of Everyday Life.  The focus on music as an expression of power also ends up placing this in a vaguely similar place as Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction.  Additionally, the reliance on stages that structure the political economy of music also bears some similarity to the “world-systems” school of thought that includes the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi.

Attali’s focus on political economics is welcomed, from the standpoint of being something so often overlooked in these sorts of histories (there are some exceptions of course).  On the other hand, despite later becoming an economic minister in the French Mitterand administration, Attali’s economic insights here are fairly superficial.  That is to say there are occasional quotations and citations, but this is more or less a work of pure theory that spends no significant effort gathering sufficient empirical evidence to test the theory.  Moreover, this sort of historiography is naturally very selective, ending up quite obviously Euro-centric (the few token non-European references just confirm this bias).  The repeated metaphors and analogies to religious practice — “rituals” especially — are also not nearly as profound as Attali apparently thought them, though his meaning is clear enough that his chosen terminology is not crucial.  Despite a few minor errors (like quoting John Cage talking about “furniture music” when Cage was just paraphrasing Erik Satie), and a somewhat polemical tone, Attali offers many insights, mostly through his framework — sentence-for sentence, Bourdieu’s Distinction is packed with way more insights than Attali manages.

Attali still offers a lot of very appealing — if still empirically unsupported — assertions.  One great one is his claim that in the 20th Century (“repeating”), the success of particular music is dependent primarily (but not solely) upon it attracting marketing support to generate demand for it.  Doesn’t that just seem intuitively correct in the commercial context?  He also states the following little gems:

“To my way of thinking, music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible.  That is the essential thing.  Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonance express marginalities.”  (p. 29).

“Noise only produces order if it can concentrate a new sacrificial crisis at a singular point, in a catastrophe, in order to transcend the old violence and recreate a system of differences on another level of organization.  *** In other words, catastrophe is inscribed in order, just as crisis is inscribed in development.  There is no order that does not contain disorder within itself, and undoubtedly there is no disorder incapable of creating order.  This covers the dynamics of codes .  There remains the question of the succession of noises and orders, and their interferences.”  (p. 34).

With respect to the period of “repeating”, he also says:

“Music has thus become a strategic consumption, an essential mode of sociality for all those who feel themselves powerless before the monologue of the great  institutions.  It is also, therefore, an extremely effective exploration of the past, at a time when the present no longer answers to everyone’s needs.” (p. 100).

In a foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson emphasizes how Attali draws from the marxist notion of (economic) base and (cultural) superstructure, but makes a novel argument about music (in the superstructure) prophetically anticipating changes in the economic base. This is precisely the opposite of what Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution does — and, for me, that was the weakest part of Denning’s book. Denning scrounges around to make his argument that the musical revolution of the early (pre-Depression) electrical microphone era was uniquely tied to the economies of global “port cities”. Denning there insists on the orthodox marxist position of the base determining the superstructure. Because he is wedded to that theoretical framework, it leads him to make some characterizations with pretty flimsy evidence — he never convinced me that port cities played any unique role, though his Noise Uprising book is still very interesting despite that limitation.

Bruits [Noise] is certainly an important statement, one that anyone contemplating the history and economics of music should grapple with in some form, in the same way as with Roland BarthesCritique et vérité [Criticism and Truth].

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”

The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

A guide by Syd Fablo, Bruno Bickleby, and Patrick.



This is a guide to the music of Ornette Coleman.  Albums are listed chronologically by recording date, broken down into multiple periods of his life and career and supplemented with biographical information.  Outtake and various artists collections are shown indented and with smaller font and images.  Bootlegs are listed, indented, but images and details are provided for only a few selected bootlegs that are of particular significance.  Guest and sideman appearances are listed separately toward the end.  Book, film/video/TV, and web site resources about or featuring Ornette are listed at the end.  The authors also provide curators’ picks and some other items of interest at the end.  While there are some compilations and box sets of Ornette’s work available, note that (with one exception) most focus on only a narrow period of time or are explicitly record label specific — the most significant of the label-specific ones being Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  It is somewhat unfortunate that many of Coleman’s recordings are currently out of print.  Moreover, unlike the deluge of archival, outtake and bonus material issued for certain other famous musical contemporaries of Ornette, there has been comparatively little of such material by him officially released to date.

A Brief Biography


Birth Name: Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman

Born: March 19, 1930 (or possibly March 9, 1930), Fort Worth, TX.

Died: June 11, 2015, New York, NY.

Ornette received almost no formal musical training, and was a noted autodidact.  Reports of him being unable to read music are often exaggerated in order to present him as a kind of primitive musical savant, rather than as someone from humble roots who willfully bucked convention.  Though he began playing music professionally while still a teenager, it was not until he was in his late 20s that he recorded as a bandleader and he was almost 30 years old before he found success as a solo act — rather late by typical jazz standards.  His music was resisted and disliked by many, but he showed an uncommon amount of “grit” in sticking with it despite adversities and setbacks.  Listeners tend to have a “love him or hate him” sort of reaction.  Usually described as shy (i.e., introverted), he also struck many as an unusual guy for his mannerisms and outlook on life.  He eventually developed his own musical theory that he dubbed “Harmolodics”, which he insisted can be applied to how one conducts their own life and to other artistic forms.  Often he described himself as a composer who performs.  “Lonely Woman” was his first “Harmolodic” composition, and is perhaps his best-known song.  One-time collaborator Pat Metheny said about him, “Ornette is the rare example of a musician who has created his own world, his own reality, his own language – effective to the point where emulation and absorbtion [sic] of it is not only impossible, it is simply too daunting a task for most musicians to even consider.”  His career (and fortunes) ebbed and flowed, with periods of intense activities and long stretches of public inactivity.  He nonetheless came to be regarded as one of America’s greatest musical innovators.  He also had a considerable art collection, and partly due to those interest notable contemporary artworks were reproduced on many of his albums, on the cover, back and/or inserts.  At least after achieving career success, he was a dapper dresser, often wearing brightly colored custom made suits.  His sister Truvenza (Trudy) Coleman also had a musical career, though she did not work with her brother professionally.


🎷🎷🎷 = top-tier; an essential

🎷🎷 = second tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more

🎷 = third tier; a lesser release, for completists only

Continue reading The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

Bill Dixon Orchestra – Intents and Purposes

Intents and Purposes

The Bill Dixon OrchestraIntents and Purposes RCA Victor LSP-3844 (1967)

The 1960s represented a crucial period for jazz music, with its commercial appeal dropping precipitously, a host of radical new innovations developing, and recording technology reaching an important plateau of sorts.  It was an era producing many acclaimed albums, which the album format in general coming into its own during the decade.  But even among the many great jazz albums of the era, Intents and Purposes stands out.  Bill Dixon was one of the great jazz artists of the 20th century, though for a variety of reasons his name is not particularly well known and his relatively small catalog of recordings has not consistently remained in print.  That was somewhat the fate of Intents and Purposes.

Recorded with a large group orchestra, the music is able to realize a wide range of textures and produce rather large swings in dynamics.  The pieces tend to, strangely enough, include many highly conventional elements of jazz and classical music.  There are clear melodic statements, tightly choreographed harmonies, and even syncopated rhythms.  But what makes the album so unique is that those conventional elements are a rather small part of the music as a whole.  Dixon places an unusually large emphasis on timbre/texture, space, and compositional movement.  There are frequently almost independent statements, such as a passage with a simultaneous trumpet improvisation, string harmonies, a pizzicato bassline, and skittering percussion, each of which might have stood on its own.  The way Dixon puts these elements together largely eliminates distinctions between foreground and background.  Filmmaker Robert Bresson famously said that while most people considered film the combination of theater and photography, he saw it as the combination of painting and music.  With Dixon, he seems to make music that combines philosophy and (wordless) poetry.

It has been noted that Dixon drew substantial influence from the work of Ornette Coleman, whose unique style of composition and performance utilized motive structures (as described by Gunther Schuller in the liner notes to Ornette!).  Dixon offers his own take on Coleman’s motivic development.  It is fair — and perhaps appropriate — to call Intents and Purposes “harmolodic” music, after Coleman’s portmanteau term for his own artistic theory.  Though Coleman tended to always emphasize elements of juxtaposition, while Dixon emphasizes synthesis a bit more.  That is evident in how he merges foreground and background, eliminating soloist/accompaniment distinctions.  There are also some resemblances here to “third stream” music, such as the collaborative album Jazz Abstractions.  Of course, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra grew out of Dixon’s earlier, less documented efforts and is certainly one of the closest counterparts to this music — compare their self-titled album from the following year.

There is a very non-competitive aspect to this music.  It asserts itself through a kind of self-actualization, but resists easy comparisons and the sort of jockeying for recognition and prestige that characterizes most other music. That sort of an outlook characterized most of Dixon’s career, in which he spent comparatively more time as an educator, recording infrequently and often merely privately.

More than half a century later, this album still sounds unique and impressive.  That is to say it hasn’t aged a day.  But that shouldn’t surprise, because while this certainly is a part of the social fabric of its time, it was always a work of unique self-expression that showed no deference to commercial trends or fads.

Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman – Song X

Song X

Pat Metheny / Ornette ColemanSong X Geffen GHS 24096 (1986)

Song X paired Ornette Coleman with the relatively popular guitarist Pat Metheny, augmented by the multifaceted drummer Jack DeJohnette and Coleman’s frequent collaborators Denardo Coleman and Charlie Haden.  Metheny’s music –primarily from his band the Pat Metheny Group — is sometimes derisively referred to as “fuzak”, meaning a kind of jazz/rock fusion that is so dull and unengaging that it resembles “Musak” brand piped-in background music.  But whatever might be said about his solo recordings, he really rises to the challenge of playing with Ornette here.  For his part, Ornette returns to a style of playing and writing that hadn’t been heard much since the 1960s.  These songs have clear melodic content, not just repeatable riffs like with his Prime Time band, and the guitar and saxophone play together in harmony.  DeJohnette is great.  It is somewhat a shame that this is the only recording of Ornette playing with him.  While the cliched 1980s production values are a bit unfortunate, they don’t detract too much from what are otherwise uniformly good performances. I think that is really the key to this album’s success.  It doesn’t devote its energies to inventing some kind of “new style” or musical theory.  It instead presents excellent new compositions that expand upon the old styles/theories and the musicians all play to the best of their abilities.  Anthony Braxton came up with a useful three-part taxonomy for musicians and their work, which was not meant to favor any particular category or categories: restructuralists (i.e., innovators and game-changers), stylists (i.e., expanding on an established framework with a uniquely identifiable perspective), and traditionalists (i.e., preserving and faithfully recreating the language and techniques of the past).  Song X represents these musicians performing as “stylists”, even as Ornette had elsewhere established himself as a “restructuralist”.  Metheny and Coleman supposedly butted heads when recording the album, in a friendly, constructive way.  It seems that friction prevented either of them from coasting on a past reputation, and works in favor of the resulting album.

This is probably my favorite of Ornette’s 1980s albums.  I can’t say I’m familiar enough with Metheny to offer a similar comparative view, though this is certainly much better than his prior solo effort Rejoicing (which featured Haden and Billy Higgins, both of whom played with Ornette in the past).  Most listeners will want to seek out the expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition of the album, which adds some very decent bonus tracks.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Museum: Hidden Man

Sound Museum: Hidden Man

Ornette ColemanSound Museum: Hidden Man Harmolodic  314 531 914-2 (1996)

Sound Museum: Hidden Man (a companion album to Sound Museum: Three Women) is appropriately titled.  Like a museum, this is sort of a curated look back at what Ornette had accomplished in his career through the mid-1990s.  And yet it also offers a slightly different perspective on his past accomplishments.  He is recording with a pianist (Geri Allen) in the most substantial way since the late 1950s.  Bassist Charnett Moffett, son of Ornette’s former drummer Charles Moffett, adds understated yet substantial coloring.  But what strikes me most about this music is the way Ornette’s trumpet playing resembles that of Bill Dixon so much.  That aspect was detectable going back to The Empty Foxhole.  Here it is unmistakable — compare Dixon’s Son of Sisyphus (1990), for instance.  There is a lightness to this music, full of space, with a conversational tone to it much like the style Dixon pioneered.  While Hidden Man might not be the most immediately striking album Ornette released over his long career, it is perhaps better than anything he released until his death in 2015.

Ornette Coleman – The Empty Foxhole

The Empty Foxhole

Ornette ColemanThe Empty Foxhole Blue Note
BLP 4246 (2966)

For better or worse, The Empty Foxhole represented Ornette Coleman trying to break from his earlier styles of writing and performing and develop new innovations.  This was a looser, more free-form style that tended toward the chaotic.  Infamously, his untrained ten-year-old son Denardo plays drums.  There are a few hints of the “slice of life” melodicism from the later years of Ornette’s mid-60s Izenzon/Moffett trio.  Yet Ornette branches away from even that, particularly when he plays violin and trumpet.  Ornette recorded this after returning from extended European touring.  In Europe, the foundations for late-60s leftist uprisings were being lain, such as with the publication of Roland BarthesCriticism and Truth, and it seems that Ornette taps into some of that here.  The album title seems to reference the Vietnam War, from a vaguely dissident/pacifist perspective.

To a point at least, I happen to like this album, which tends to be much derided by listeners.  Sure, Denardo’s drumming is inept and is a distraction.  But the overall looseness of these performances is purposefully reigned in somewhat in a way that many other late-60s Coleman recordings are not.  It must be said that while Ornette was one of a very tiny handful of iconoclastic jazz innovators of the 1950s, a decade later many others had taken up the cause and it was now necessary to judge Ornette’s recordings against those of others.  There is a quality to The Empty Foxhole that reminds me of a miniaturized version of Marzette WattsMarzette & Company, or even Don Cherry‘s Eternal Rhythm, though I like the later Watts and Cherry albums much more.  So, while I admire this album, and it certainly marked an important shift in Ornette’s music from a historical perspective, it isn’t one of his essential albums by any means.

clipping. – Splendor & Misery

Splendor & Misery

clipping.Splendor & Misery Deathbomb Arc/Sub Pop DBA 150, SP 1173 (2016)

Sounds a lot like Kool Keith‘s classic Black Elvis/Lost in Space and Antipop Consortium‘s Arrhythmia. The raps use an exaggerated monotone and emphasize a stilted, inflexibly mechanical or robotic cadence, often at an artificially fast tempo.  This is decent, but can’t quite match its precedents.  Mainly the problem is the “concept album” storyline, which is too “theatrical” and hemmed in by linear narrative.