The John Coltrane Theory (pre-element#1)
the following is a thought excercise i have been using for teh last couple of years. please note; this is not "the" truth nor is it even "a" truth. it is a myth i have used to investigate an idea concerning the nature of sound, music and control.
My name is Onyx Ashanti. I gave myself that name 3 days after the Rodney King riots in Atlanta Georgia in 1992. I have been a musician my whole life, beginning with flute then on to saxophone, then wind midi controller and eventually on to to self designed constucts; the beatjazz controller, which eventually evolved into a prosthesis called an exo-voice. all of these systems had one thing in common; they were all fingered using woodwind fingering systems, ie, even though they were different instruments, i have mostly been using saxophone fingerings to play all of them. because of this, i tended to gravitate toward listening to saxophone players alot.
growing up in mississippi in the 70's and 80's there wasnt much jazz. most of my cultural conceptualization came from either church, radio or tv. at this time, satellite and cable were bringing new channels to us country folk like BET and MTV and others. those channels tended toward a wider pop sensibility than local channels in northern mississippi so i became immersed in the then new phenomenon of hip hop and the constantly mutating RnB form.
back then, most pop groups had a sax player and most pop songs had a solo section for a saxophone solo. it was a great time to be a kid playing sax, especially a kid who lived waaaaaay out in the countryside (or as we called it, “the boonies”) where said kid could just go out into the field behind the house and play such profoundly important music artificacts as "Word up", "Glamorous life", and of course, "Maneater". even somehow convincing the marching band i was in in high school to play some of these songs during football games...ahhh...good times...
the point is that at no point did names like john coltrane, miles davis or charlie parker ever come up. ever. not even when i graduated from high school and went to Grambling State University in Louisiana. or rather, they and their music DID come up but the pop-program i had running in my head was strong enough that when we were tasked with playing these gems from the "realbook"(a book of jazz standards that all gigging jazz musicians carry around with them, physically and mentally), i could sight read it and play the notes but I didnt know why i should care. i just thought it was one of those things you do in school, like tests and essays. some sort of overly complicated history lesson.
by the time i left university and moved to atlanta, all i wanted to play was RnB and hip hop, but luckily Atlanta had a great jazz scene that spanned from the contemporary jazz that i loved, ala, gerald albright, kirk whalum david sandborn et al, all the way over to the "standard" stuff, as i called it, of coltrane, miles, parker...so there was a very useful oscillation between the pop sensibilities and the standards, leaning toward pop.
thankfully at that time i met a man by the name of yusef sharif. a bebopper extraordinaire. it was from watching him that i decided to become a street busker. he was the man who gave me lessons for a couple of years and took me to jam sessions where "real" jazz was played. i watched as he would proceed to intimidate an entire room of jazz musicians with nothing but the fire that would erupt from his horn. a fire of true jazz. of mathematics and algorithmic sound. it was thru him and his playing and his words that i was finally hipped to what jazz is and was and should be. and more importantly to who these legends were and what they represent. the pop-program was beginning to mutate but it wasnt time yet because other sounds had begun to draw my attentions, namely jungle, house, 90's timbaland and puffy (mary j, jodeci, etc). this was the emergence of the dominance of the DJ and beat culture into mainstream pop culture and the submergence of instrumental music as it had been in the previous era(thanks kenny g).
so lets fast forward scan the years from the late 90s until around 2010; playing on the street helped develop an improvisational concept that allowed for more intricate playing of the wind controller in the club scene that was life at that time.eventually i began to feel the edges of my abilities so i began to dig deeper in to learning more about improvisation as well as programming my synthesizers and along the way the internet became useful as a place of investigation. all of a sudden (for me) i could just type in miles davis and hear everything he ever did.
as i was reaching the limitations of my previous improvisational ideas i rediscovered, first charlie parker and bebop. i could just type his name and listen to everything! it was like being a world class record collector! i had everything and in chronological order! by this time, around 2009, i was beginning to become bored with the beat scenes i had been part of, for now going on 20 something years, so this re-emergent jazz expression was so fresh and new to me. streams of flowing thought encoded as rhythtm, harmony, syncopation, metaphor, humor, emotion, intensity, anguish...fuck...i could hear it, but i still didnt know what "it" was. i had spent so many years doing "else", that i was coming to this archive of genius, new. the difference was that i had been investigating the inside of my own head for 20 years as an improviser, so i could begin to understand the reasons for certain choices they were making and at what point in the pieces. the true freeing moment came when i stopped trying to convert what I was hearing, into words. when that happened, BOOOOM!!! all of a sudden i was hearing heirogyphics! my mind was just blown! how the fuck could this be freely available?! this wasnt music! this was the fucking point!! whoaaaa!!!
so needless to say, i was hooked. i was hearing the internal dialogue of a genius and i could hear everything they recorded right in my little flat in berlin all day all night. so let me interject here...i am a patternist (this term will mean more soon); i discern patterns easily and i can incorporate those patterns into my expressions. i was drunk on charlie parker patterns for about 6-8 months of 12 hours a day immersion until one day the thought hit me...
"hmmmm...whats this coltrane thing about?"
...before i go on, let me note that this is coming from a, then, 40 year old (beat)jazz musician so whether that is an embarassment or not, is up to you but, needless to say, i became a disciple of coltrane on that day, at that moment, literally crying while listening and saying over and over to myself and anyone around me, "I GET IT!! I FINALLY GET IT!!" his math washed over me and i was reborn again! he took the conversation that parker had begun in my head and expanded on it....debating some points while cosigning on others then building his own thesis. i say conversation because he began with a bop sensibility then evolved toward greater and greater complexfication.
oh my the complexification...from fire to butter to chocolate to chaos to architecture...portals to other dimensions. history reprogrammed...futures diagrammed and flowcharted...it felt like i was in my own fortress of solitude and i was kal-el and coltrane was jor-el and these recordings were those crystals that stored all the knowledge of krypton...yeah, like that!
by the time i began my coltrane listening era, i had a wonderful place to live in kreuzberg in berlin with endless amounts of time to "study", so i made a point of beginning with the earliest recordings first and meditated on them repeatedly until i had them memorized, then would move on to the next and the next, chronologically and methodically all the way up to a recording that was made at a performance he did 2 weeks before he died in 1967, then i would just playlist them in order. eventually i asked another of those funny questions...
"so...whats the deal with this sun ra dude?"
and so we arent going to go there in this essay but you already know , so lets move on to the theory
the john coltrane theory
cut to the recent past, winter 2015. by this time, having moved from berlin to detroit to expand my project within the exponential "now", my listening-to-coltrane-all-the-time era had ended and i had become interested in scores of other jazz musicians to the same depth of investigatory interest; eric dolphy, ornette coleman, archi shepp, cecil taylor, and of course sun ra, as well as others, but many others do not have the depth of recordings, so they were short studies.
one night I was having an interesting debate with a friend about systems of mind control and how pop music is part of such a system (briefly, overly simplistic music begats overly simplistic thought forms). coltranes name pops up in the debate. i was arguing, in a nutshell, that he was stretching the bounds of music and my friend was arguing that he was well within the range of what constituted music, which offended my sensitivities since i had been diefying coltrane for a while at this point (note, at the time of this writing, i am 45 so this whole reconfiguration of mind is less than 5 years old), so i was becoming argumentative but he was making a couple of solid jabs that stung enough to make me think carefully about my reasonings. for the next couple of days i let my mind ponder and investigate our dialogue.
during this time i began studying micro tonal systems, which means music that isnt tuned to 12 chromatic notes like western music. and simultaneously i was investigating non 4/4 timing. within this span i had become bored of the predictability of 4/4. its monotonizing effect on the brain and the mind. I was asking question about why is "music" music? what is this thing we call music and why is not something else "music"? electronic sound aids this investigation very very much. and this was going thru my head while i was pondering the coltrane conversation when an idea hit me;
what if along the way to looking for transcendence, coltrane discovered that he was trapped in a psychic matrix made of sound? what if all that we perceive as his genius was actually him trying to escape this construct?
maybe this is old-hat for some but this was new to me. so i decided to "go in" and explore this idea.
over the last few years of evolving the exo-voice, i kept discovering walls. so many of them that it made me begin to question what they were. for instance, the exo-voice is interacted with using saxophone fingerings. I use these because i played sax and wind midi controller for so many year and decided that it would be easiest to just use that muscle memory but because its electronic, i gave it 9 octaves of range which is better than the 7 octaves afforded by the wind controller and the approximately 5 octaves you can get out of a saxophone. and i played ALOT so i began to notice that even with 9 octaves of range, i could feel that there were things i could not play because of the coarseness of octaves split into 12 notes each. the exo-voice can change the pitch of 4 simultaneous notes using hand positions, but i still interface with this "quad-note" using 12 equal steps per octave.
to get over this limitation musicians use segementation concepts such as "key", which restricts the notes one can play together. using different "keys" is the difference between sounding "bluesy" and sounding like a military march. much can be done but i could feel the limitation in all the things i couldn play and had no concept of why i would want to...i knew there was something in between these 12 notes and i've been working to escape out of this coarse construct for a while.
by the same token, another listen to coltranes discography revealed such a desire. listening to his earliest stuff first, what you hear is almost perfect mathematical form.
like sonic geometry;everything is where it should be. by the time he dropped giant steps, he was buoyant and joyful in his expression of this mathematical form. he was a man who had it all figured out and wanted you to know it. beautiful and symmetrical. then came my favorite things!
he ran a broadway show tune thru his algorithm and transformed it so completely that no one can barely remember the orginal. all hail jazz!
hmmm...but then you listen, album after album and something emerges. where there was once certitude, there is now, not doubt...no, more like an itch....a meta question.
he started to ask, in his music, why...why do i play these mathematical intervals in this perfectly aesthetically acceptable way? what is tempo? why is this right and that isnt? i could go on but the point is that questions werent with words...they were with his sound and that of the musicians he surrounded himself with. he was known to gravitate toward the outliers and freaks of the jazz world. the questions were always in the music.
so, lets cut away one more time.
almost all western music is based on the pythagorean tuning. without going into a deep music theory lesson, the intervals (notes) in this system are based on mathematical ratios. for instance, a double of any interval is its octave or 2 to 1 so, say, if the frequency is 100hz and you double it, it is becomes 200hz. thats an octave. and its logarithmic meaning that rather than 100, 200, 300, 400, it is 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc. so you get the note intervals within the octaves as ratios as well. the entire 12 tone scale is based on these ratios but there is an issue...
perfect mathematical intervals do not result in octaves
octaves are perfect but perfect intervals dont create them. perfect mathematical interval ratios actually go past the octave point by a small amount, called a pythagorean comma, so to "remedy" this, western music uses a thing called "equal temperment" which means that all the intervals are squeezed a bit so that the 12 tones always come around to an octave every 12 tones. otherwise, the intervals would actually "spiral" outward logarithmically, like a whirlpool. as is, its less spirally and more cyclical, like a slinky. this allows western instruments to be standardized so that they can be tuned together and orchestras can result, as well as pianos, guitars, and horns such as tubas, trumpets, flutes and saxophones.
in addition, base two frequency tunings have a strange relationship to many frequencies in nature. base2 means multiples of 2, ie, 1,2,4,8,16,32,64 etc...the schuman resonance, which is known as the resonance of the planet, is around 7.8-7.9hz, very close to 8hz. frequencies such as 128hz, 256hz and the famous 432hz are all multiples of base2 frequencies and are known to sound and feel more calming and resonant. ive been playing with these tones for the last couple of years and although not earth shatteringly different (probably owing to my sound designs) they do tend toward being less abrasive than sounds that i was making pre january 2015.
one interesting conspiracy concerning the power of tuning was that the rockefeller foundation had been pushing for the international standard of tuning to be shifted from 432hz to 440hz apparently because it made people work harder. some say it was the nazis whatever…but in the summer of 1939 “whoever it was” succeeded in getting the international standard organization to make the shift...3 months before world war 2...just sayin...(this aspect is less important than artificially constrained octave based systems, but this isnt a scientific paper, it’s a myth I made up as a thought exercise, so…)
who or whatever it was, all instruments from that point forward would be tuned to a concert a that was at the frequency of 440hz. this tuning could be variable in instruments like pianos, which could be tuned string by string, but an instrument like a saxophone would have both systems "hard-coded" into the instrument-the 12 tone equal temperment interval relationship as well as 440hz tuning. this tuning standard still stands to this day as does 12 tone equal temperment, although both are less permanent with the emergence of programmable electronic sounds...
so back to coltrane...
in the early 60's coltrane was an international star. My favorite things was a massive crossover hit and he was playing all over the world and was able to interact with many varied artists and musicians. around this time he began to be fascinated with indian music and indian artists such as ravi shankar. around this time, i believe the questions were becoming more overt. with a more bold spiritual conceptualization came a bolder more intense investigation of how to transcend these worldly constraints, two of which were the saxophone with its built in constraning mechanisms, of 12 tone fingerings and tuning as well as the time signatures he could now see were holding him back.
he began to commune with his horn up to 18 hours a day. 45 minute solos at concerts (and longer). a complete change of band. his music became a mutation engine. tempo and key were shed like a discarded crysallis. his soul clawed at the walls of this jazz/horn/12tone cage multidimensionally. he went into hyperspace to find the answers. it was there, i believe, that he discovered the matrix of interwoven control mechanisms. that the saxophone, western musical form and jazz itself were conspiring to keep him grounded. it was then that he set off on his grand research project to investigate this cage and and free himself from it.
first he sourrounded himself with musicians who could build a new kind of portal...one free of the limitations he could now see very clearly. together they would rewrite the code in realtime. as the portal threw off the energetic particles of new possibilities, he turned his attention to his horn-his ship...his cage...his weapon...his laboratory...his voice...he re-comprehended what it was. each key, each sound that escaped from each vibration was a bit in a quantum space. he would stack the intervals so fast that they sounded as if they were played simultaneously. he was programming his own perception of himself thru this interface. there were no longer 12 equal tones. there was only cymatic computation projected into a portal of sonically encoded intent. if you listen closely to when he squeals a note, this is no random sqeak for effect. this is a new form of note...an emergent high pitched meta-note birthed from intention, experience and physics. its not one sound. there are overtones and harmonics that come from placing the lip, the tongue, the breath and the throat cavity into a precisely exact position. feedback and control. cybernetic perfection.
listening to this recording which was done shortly before his death, you hear a lifetime of research assembled into a meta-portal. a portal of portals. a wistful prayer. it feels like he knows that he is not long of this earth and wanted to build a construct that was the expression of a life of investigation. this was his unified theory of jazz. it never once has a discernable tempo or key, but there is an order that is undeniable. i feel that he realized that this was his opus moment. that there was nothing more to do within this construct. anything else would be him crossing tracks he had already made. he completely exausted the possibilites of these constructs and he knew it. the screaming that comes from the horn in this concert is simultaneously the expression of perfect control of an interface of limited dimensional resolution and the voice of Self inhabiting his body and experience to speak new dimensions thru them as fully as could be done with his construct in that moment. he clawed his way free of the cage and became the angel.