I’d like to continue exploring the topic of intention and reception. I ended my previous post on this topic referencing technical ability and execution. This was on my mind quite a bit a few weeks ago as I listened to Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman‘s Song X: Twentieth Anniversary. I really enjoy that album, as I enjoy both Pat and Ornette separately, but I found myself still tuning out through Ornette Coleman’s violin solo in “Mob Job.” For the uninitiated, Coleman famously – infamously? – extended his free jazz (or harmolodic) approach beyond the saxophone, his instrument, and started incorporating trumpet and violin – instruments he couldn’t play. After years of this, he’s now labeled as a saxophonist, trumpeter, and violinist in many articles.
I could listen to Ornette’s sax playing all day long and really dig it, but there’s a part of me that can’t get past his taking up instruments and just making noise without any ability. While most lay listeners would probably just think it all sounds the same, I can’t get past it as a musician. (And no, it certainly does not sound the same.) For reference, here’s some footage of Coleman on violin, later switching to trumpet (it’s entertaining to see him adjust the violin’s fine tuning peg):
Now contrast that with his saxophone playing from the same concert (the first half of this video). I get behind this. It’s not just a sonic wash of ascending and descending passages:
Before going further, I should say that I don’t mean for this article to be an “attack” on Coleman. Far from it. (And what would he care, he’s accomplished far more in his career than I could hope to.) I do genuinely enjoy his music and greatly appreciate what he did for art. But this one aspect sticks in my craw and, more importantly, relates to the larger topic I started exploring here a few weeks back. In fact, many more offensive examples that I’ve seen in person come to mind, but Coleman’s perhaps the most well-known example I can think of for use here. I find myself really agreeing with Miles Davis on this point (from his autobiography):
For him – a sax player – to pick up a trumpet and violin like that and just think he can play them with no kind of training is disrespectful toward all those people who play them well. And then to sit up and pontificate about them when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about is not cool, man. But you know, music’s all just sounds anyway.[1. Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 250.]
I sympathize with both Miles’s disagreement but also his acknowledging the place of sound. If someone just wants a wash of ascending and descending lines, then who cares if they play the instrument well or not? I easily concede that point, as I get it from an artistic/theoretical perspective. What if a musicians just wants a bunch of squeaks and squawks on the saxophone? One could argue that it may be best for a non-saxophonist to produce such sounds. In fact, we can see this here in a live video of none other than Marilyn Manson in 2005:
Before too many of you raise your eyebrows and say that Mary (as I’ve called him since middle school) is just being obnoxious while Ornette is creating art, briefly consider a few things:
1. Yes, the saxophone was used to create noise. That was the intent.
2. This occurs at the end of the title song of 2003’s The Golden Age of Grotesque. That whole album (and tour and surrounding ethos) was not just about “the grotesque,” which is vague, but rather it drew heavily from German Kabarett, censorship (particularly the Degenerate Art exhibitions under the Third Reich), and minstrelsy. He then connected those themes with post-Columbine and post-9/11 American culture. (Manson’s no intellectual slouch…)[2. If you want to go deeper down this rabbit hole, I suggest this article that I recently came across when assembling some links for this post. Good stuff.]
3. Strictly focusing on saxophone, kudos to him for using a period-appropriate model. Sigurd Rascher would’ve been proud. 🙂
4. Outside of including “saxophone” under his name in the album’s liner notes, Mary isn’t referred to as a “saxophonist” in his articles or titles. He understands the context.
5. FYI: I didn’t go searching for an outrageous example saxophone squawks to be incendiary. The last time I saw Marilyn Manson in concert was on this tour in 2003, and I occasionally go back to that memory when thinking of this particular instrumental conundrum.
Context matters, of course. Because at the end of the day they’re two men making noise on instruments they can’t play.
Now of course there can be an intersection between the above two poles in which someone “makes noise” on his/her primary instrument that seems indiscernible from a novice. Some of Evan Parker‘s music comes to mind. In the below video, if you were to just watch the images without sound, one would think he’s just letting his fingers run wild. However, when you actually listen to his sounds, you hear incredible control of both tonguing, range, and contour. He manages polyphony all by himself. (I can be partial, though, because I’m a Parker fan.):
Whew. Well, that’s enough to chew on for now. I’ll definitely be returning to this topic. And, as I said in my last post in this series, these are real rough drafts. I’m just trying to collect my thoughts on this topic.