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Ornette Coleman interview, 1996 

Thursday, Nov 11 2004
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What is reality? One ’60s sci-fi story speculated that long ago the world actually was flat, and that the seat of human reason actually was the heart, not the brain. The story wondered if pi at one time actually was 3.1, as some old texts say, not 3.14159 etc. You could come closer than that with a piece of string, the theory went, yet the ancients used the ratio to build large edifices with virtually no error.

It has to do with learning, with perception. If you’re conditioned to see something, you see it, and it’s real to you whether or not it exists, a word drawn from Greek roots meaning to "stand outside."

Also in this issue:
Read this week's interview with Denardo Coleman
Read this week's interview with Charlie Haden

From past issues:
Read a 1989 cover story on Ornette Coleman
Read a 1991 interview with Charlie Haden
Read a 1991 blindfold test with Charlie Haden

Sometimes it seems that Ornette Coleman perceives the world differently from the rest of us. Maybe he didn’t internalize some of his conditioning; maybe he sees more accurately. Since the ’50s, his perceptions have led him to create music different from anyone else’s, music without chord changes, without harmonic rules, without hierarchies. When he talks about it, he uses terms more commonly associated with human relationships than with musical styles, and he’s not being metaphorical. He thinks of his instrument (alto sax, trumpet and violin) as only one of the voices in his music’s conversation, and considers its role less important than his role as a composer. And his definition of a composer isn’t the usual one: he doesn’t make structures to set limits, he makes rooms where people can meet.

Coleman calls his approach harmolodics: "a theory, not a style." But it’s not even a theory, really, it’s more of a philosophy, emphasizing equality of voices, freedom, spontaneity and participation -- not just for the musicians, for the audience, too.

Though Coleman’s doors are always open, not everyone is inclined to walk in. In the beginning, his music was called noise. The radical turn jazz took in the ’60s, inspired largely by Coleman’s innovations, chafed beboppers and swing devotees alike. Throughout his career, frequent changes in his sound, from quasi-bop to total freedom to chamber music to symphony to electric double quartet, have made it hard for him to build a wide following. His relations with record labels have been brief and stormy, so there have been long spells with no "product."

Now is a period of high visibility. Late last year, Coleman and his electric Prime Time band shattered a seven-year silence with Tone Dialing, a chaotic, energized portrait of polyglot modern America. The new release is Sound Museum, a collection of new and used Coleman tunes performed by an acoustic quartet in two different versions on two separate albums. And in the symphonic arena, it’s not hard to imagine why the French government commissioned Coleman to write a piece for chamber orchestra celebrating the French Revolution; it is slated to receive its first American performance at New York’s Lincoln Center (without the agency of Wynton Marsalis) in December.

***

Speaking quietly, unassertively, with a slight lisp, Coleman doesn’t sound like a revolutionary or a confrontational artist, and he doesn’t identify with the dogmatism those labels imply. "I don’t want to monitor, or be like the police," he says on the phone from the New York office of his own Harmolodic Records. "I’m only trying to say that whatever you like about the things you care about, you can participate in it. I try to inspire people to participate in sound, in many ways -- mentally, emotionally, psychically, physically."

One way he does that is through multimedia spectacle, an angle he first explored in the ’80s in collaboration with Houston’s Carnival of Dreams arts facility. A 1993 San Francisco show, which went virtually unreported due to a regional newspaper strike, found his two bands sharing the stage with a poet, a light show and skin-piercing guru Fakir Mustafar. Mustafar pierced himself with long needles through the nose, cheeks and chest, and presided over a ritual in which he skewered three nearly naked young people (two women and a man) through the skin of the upper breast, and presided over a dance in which they twirled about in metal collars and heavy-duty chains. The audience was polarized: many fled the arena in disgust; others thought the young people were being exploited; others were riveted.

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