(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
America has an aptitude for breeding iconoclasts. In its overall geography —not only in terms of land but culture—many weird little eddies may form, developing new procedures and ideas in tight, one-man whirlpools. Two among their number include Charles Ives, the proto-ultramodernist, and Ornette Coleman, the free jazz giant. Though they are considered frequently as separate entities, they are almost certainly cut from the same cloth—not only in terms of their music, but in terms of the cultural conditions that conspired to create their unique approaches and aesthetics. To expose and examine their aesthetic principles, we must provide as level a playing ground as we can. Fortunately, each composer enjoys composing and arranging for similar formats—both have published songs (Ornette’s What Reason Could I Give, Ives’ The Cage), compositions that are essentially strata of noise (Ornette’s Science Fiction, Ives’ Housatonic At Stockbridge), and made an effort to join the tradition of Western music by re-examining existing material (Ornette’s treatment of Embraceable You, Ives’ organ transcription of America The Beautiful).
Overall, too, each man possesses similar career characters. Ives’ particular idiom, for example, came about ten to twenty years after the height of late Romanticism—a highly structured, ordered music. Ives’ response was to synthesize that basic language (harmonic and melodic) into a new, non-tonal context that frequently sounded chaotic and ‘inexcusable’(Burkholder: Ideas 61) He was willing to present chaos and dissonance in a way that not even the Second Viennese School was willing to do—Ives has no system to his atonality and fully relied on intuition (Burkholder: World 130), while the Second School is of course famous for developing the twelve-tone method. As a result, Ives had nothing to point to in order to answer questions from critics, which may have contributed to his extreme isolation from other composers and musicians (Burkholder: Ideas 92).
Compare this to Ornette! Ornette’s particular idiom came about ten to twenty years after the height of bebop—a highly ordered, structured music. Ornette’s response was to synthesize that basic language (melodic and harmonic—see Jayne, Chronology, and Chippie, which are all written over chord changes which were familiar to beboppers for evidence of the latter) into a new, non-tonal context which frequently incited other musicians to throw him off the bandstand (Litweiler 59). He was willing to present chaos—in this context, unprepared frameworks for improvisation—in ways that not even the Lenox School for Jazz was (Litweiler 69). Ornette, though there is evidence for a later, after-the-fact Harmolodic Method (Litweiler 147), fully relied on intuition at the time and had no method, which may have contributed to his extreme isolation from musicians who were not working with him.
Furthermore, each idiom has similar characters. Both composers place a very high value on virtuosity, to the point where the melodies they write are sometimes garbled in performance. Compare Ornette’s Civilization Day with some of Ives’ abstracted melodies in Movement II of Concord Sonata—the demands on the performers are extraordinary and require great control over the instruments written for. Both of their usages of virtuosity are tied in with the teenage occupations and interests of both men. Ives’ athleticism is well written about (Magee 47), and his excitement with the physical may have encouraged the composition of these difficult, physically engaging melodies—likely strengthened through church work (Burkholder: Ideas 55). Ornette’s facility on saxophone was attenuated through constant work in Fort Worth rhythm and blues groups (Wilson 10-11). It was also encouraged through a preoccupation with bebop, specifically Charlie Parker (Wilson 11}. One must only look at several titles of Ornette’s to verify this—The Legend of Bebop, Bird Food, et. Al.
The fact that both men were active in their geographical areas’ centers of culture (Ives in the New England church, Ornette in the Texan dance band) during their formative years likely provides the reason for their shared preoccupation with folk forms and melodies. Ives compulsively quotes from folk melodies and hymns in his works (most overtly in the vocal line of The Things Our Fathers Loved). Ornette shared a similar compulsion for the blues and with its associated gestures. To number the compositions in and the ways in which Ornette makes an overture to the blues would be impossible.
Furthermore, Ornette’s choice in sidemen can also serve as an indicator of his allegiance toward his folk music—the bassist Charlie Haden, with whom Ornette shared a very important working relationship for decades, started out at the age of two as a singer with the Haden Family Band (Litweiler 59). Their repertoire included country music and American folk music, and Haden’s connection with that music was lifelong (his Old Joe Clark quote on Ramblin’, his albums of spirituals with Hank Jones, and so on). It is not hard to realize that even though Ornette may not have specifically chosen Haden due to his tenure with the Haden Family Band, he certainly did choose to work with Haden due to Haden’s audible familiarity with folk idioms and gestures. In this way, Ornette consciously strengthened the American qualities in his music.
Given these extreme similarities, it is difficult to consider these two entities as having separate aesthetics and separate visions for the future of their music. Furthermore, both composers have made overtures to place themselves in the tradition of American music—not just Western music, but specifically inside the set of cultural sigils that spell ‘America’ to the listener.
As prolific composers, both men have more than enough material to only perform their own work. Therefore, the decision to perform pre-existing material represents a choice to explicitly participate in an existing tradition. However, each man has his own traditions to claim links to and reasons for doing so—but occasionally demonstrate similar veins of thinking in terms of their statements.
Ives’ Variations on ‘America’ for organ represents Ives placing himself in the virtuoso soloist tradition, as well as a comment on tonality and the traditional solemnity of ‘America’. Done at the age of 17 in 1891, it is in the overall form of a theme and variations, but is in a radically extroverted and brash manner. The variations, while clearly along rhythmic lines (as is typical in such compositions), display a clear line of timbral thinking made possible by skillful use of the stops on the organ. This is striking, because it is not just an exploration of the sounds the organ can make but integrated into the harmony of the piece as well—the more distorted and guttural the timbre Ives pulls out of the organ, the more dissonant and abrasive the harmonies presented. Tonality is also treated freely—before Variation 5, there is a moment where the right hand is in Ab and the left is in F. This is not to say, however, that Ives meant this as a novelty of harmony to not be taken seriously. The pedal part in the final variation is a massive technical challenge. There is, therefore, a showmanship aspect to this piece. It is an invitation to revel at physical prowess, not a poem meant to capture patriotic pride—but also a way for Ives to demonstrate his superior control of the keyboard, and his membership among its masters.
Ornette uses Embraceable You to make similar comments about his place in the tradition. Ornette is clearly channeling the prototypical bebop legend, Charlie Parker, who made a famous recording of the same composition. The statement is clear—like Ives putting himself among the virtuosi, here Ornette is making a case for his place in his idiom among its top practitioners. But even as he makes his case, he modifies expected parameters. A complete statement of Embraceable You’s melody is never made, but the theme is still used as the basis for Ornette’s gestures and as the basis for new material serving as an introduction/conclusion. The texture is immediately different as well—not only is there an absence of any chordal instrument, Ed Blackwell is using a different kind of beater on the drumset for much of the tune (not brushes, but mallets—a clear timbral change). Ornette uses timbre as an integral part of his commentary like Ives—when Ornette modifies his timbre, he also modifies his intonation. In his conception, a grating timbre should be associated with an out-of-tune pitch, and Ornette improvises accordingly. Ethnic gestures like Ives’ Polonaise Variation also are integral to Ornette’s conception. In this case it is the presence of the blues—while Ornette’s playing is generally saturated with its elements, several gestures as overt as Ives’ naked polonaise rhythm can be heard (most audibly at 1:31 and 1:45 in the This is our Music recording).
Both composers also tend to compose for instrumental ensembles, but when they do compose for voice it is as a rule with their own lyric. Their treatment of song shares another, more integral similarity—their shared use of procedures to organize the composition. Both composers set out rules and then pursue them for the rest of the composition. In these two examples, this is evidenced by the organization of the ensemble into units that share no material and the strict transposition of a harmony. This focuses one’s attention on the least systematically treated aspect of the music—the words. It seems that both Ives and Ornette want their lyric to come across as strongly as possible, to the point of reducing the amount of musical material actually present.
Ornette may have a piercing timbre and attack, but when he writes for voice the alto sax takes a background role, as do most other instruments, to the vocalist. In What Reason Could I Give, there is a clear focus on the voice and a subsequent instrumental division of role into two units. Furthermore, the composition as a whole has all the parameters set in place before performance occurs; while the specifics of performance are indeterminate, they cannot violate the rules. Unit One, comprised of Charlie Haden’s bass and Billy Higgins’ drumset, serves to create a web of nonmetered time and to generate a general pulse. Haden continually alternates between harmonically supporting and undermining the melody presented by the second unit, a wind quartet presenting a harmonization of the melody in diatonic fourths in support of vocalist Asha Pulthi. The melodic line itself is very strong and rhythmically varied, with a logical arc and logical use of register. This is par for the course for slow Ornette melodies—as a rule they are highly intuitive and easy to audiate. The procedural aspect makes the two units of the ensembles act according to totally different rules—but also makes the compositions as a whole easy to understand.
Ives’ treatment of The Cage shares some striking similarities. While there are superficial aspects at the beginning (the constant pulse, the quartal harmony) the real resemblance occurs in Ives’ systematic treatment of the material outlined there. Like Reason, the piano and voice of The Cage are treated as separate entities with musical material that is developed separately and does not necessarily align. However, Ives takes it one step further and includes his systematic mindset in the compositional process—the vocal line is a very untuneful pair of whole-tone collections, and the quartal chords at the beginning are simply transposed up a fourth to form an accompaniment. This is much more mechanical and much less intuitive than Ornette’s approach but seems to come from an identical impulse—to create an unchanging web of material so the focal point can be on the words of the voice. Ives takes his text painting to a compositional degree—using varied rhythms to accentuate certain words and so forth—not something Ornette was clearly thinking about. Also unlike Ornette, rhythm is hardly considered (especially in how the piano accompaniment interacts with the vocal line and how the vocal line’s monorhythmy is hardly ever broken up).
However, as much as both composers can write well for exposed elements, their true arranging skill comes out in their respective stratifications of chaos. For effective presentation of chaotic music to occur, one must not only have a good grasp on instrumentation and orchestration but on the human attention span—when perhaps dozens of things are simultaneously occurring, how do you get a listener to pay attention to a desired element? Both composers, when confronted with the same problem, concoct different solutions.
Ives chooses to use our own memories to his ends in The Housatonic At Stockbridge, which is meant to be a musical depiction of moving through a specific physical place. To capture that, he uses different elements of the orchestra to depict non-interacting parts of the landscape (undulating strings to depict a river and so on)—but without bothering to make sure they are consonant with each other. With no mutually-agreed upon tonality or rhythm, Ives draws attention with blatantly diatonic/pentatonic folk melody quotations in instruments whose timbre is likely to cut through the haze (specifically the horns)—and furthermore, organizes the listener’s ‘journey through the landscape’ by skillfully manipulating the textures sounding in the piece.
Ornette also directs attention via timbre, but demonstrates far less thought toward orchestration. In Science Fiction, the two strata are a whole-group collective improvisation and a spoken word piece. The attention is supposed to be placed on the spoken word—and that is accomplished via studio manipulation. The musicians in the group improvisation are constantly being panned left to right and buried under layers of themselves, while the voice itself is placed ‘on top’ and outfitted with an ominous reverb effect. The overall effect is that the improvisation never takes precedence over the poem. Compared with Ives’ constant reshuffling of textures and timbres, it is easier for the listener to recognize what they should be paying attention to and when, but is also far less artful and subtle when doing so.
Even with creative heydays separated by fully 50 years, totally different levels of education, and hailing from geographically isolated different areas of the country, Ives and Ornette managed to generate highly personal idioms with very similar aesthetic principles—the primacy of folk music, the artful direction of attention in chaotic music, the conflation of timbre with other elements like harmony and intonation, and the use of guiding ideas or rulesets to structure a song-form. Their legacies are also similar—their aesthetics and idioms were not necessarily for their peers but for the following generation of musicians. Ives’ main following would be among the Pan-American Association of Composers and his place in the performing tradition is still largely limited to his patriotic music; Ornette’s legacy would become clear first among his own sidemen (with groups like Old and New Dreams) and then become crystallized in the last twenty years as a true part of the jazz tradition, but its acceptability in performance is largely limited to his earliest work. For all their roots in pure American folk idioms, their abstractions of those idioms mean that these two men tend to not receive their deserved credit as true iconoclasts.
Burkholder, J. Peter. Charles Ives and His World. 1st ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ML410.I95 C33.
Burkholder, J. Peter. Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind The Music. 1st ed. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc, 1985. ML 410 .I95 B87.
“Chronology”. The Shape of Jazz To Come. Atlantic Records. May 22, 1959. Web. 7/16/2014. Transcription by Loren Pickford.
Frink, Nathan. An Analysis of the Compositional Practices of Ornette Coleman as Demonstrated in his Small Group Recordings During the 1970s. University of Pittsburgh, 2012.
Litweiler, John. Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life. 1st Da Capo Press ed. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994. ML 419 .C63 L6.
Magee, Gayle Sherwood. Charles Ives Reconsidered. 1st ed. University of Illinois Press, 2008. ML 410 .I94 M34
Wilson, Peter. Ornette Coleman: His Life And Music. 1st ed. Berkeley : Berkeley Hills Books, 1999.
ML419 .C63 W513