The Rhetoric of Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics

March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

 This is a paper I was working on a few years ago on Ornette Coleman’s rhetoric.  It references an interview you can watch on youtube in two parts:

Harmolodics : The theoretical underpinnings of harmolodic theory are extremely suspect, even more so than those of George Russell’s Lydian chromatic theory, but there is no question that these sorts of casual, homemade approaches to jazz theory have been of great value to performers and educators, helping them to capture, or to communicate, through inferential or emotive means, some of the processes involved in jazz improvisation.

 -Grove Encyclopedia of Music

For fifty years, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory has both baffled and inspired musicians and critics.  Coleman became nationally recognized when he entered the New York jazz scene in the late fifties after attending the Lenox School of jazz summer program in 1959 and then appearing at the Five Spot later that year.  His sound was controversial to begin with, but he was also a new face to the scene in New York.  The jazz press gave him so much attention that some musicians resented not just his new approach to the music, but because did not “pay his dues.”  Coleman’s rapport with journalists and record companies also has a history of misunderstandings.  It is not frequent that one gets a chance to interview him, and even when one gets a chance to interview him, his answers can at first seem vague or elusive.  Coupled with his status as the bringer of “free jazz” (which is not completely true), Coleman has a public aura of mystique and he is often praised by artists and listeners as a sort of legendary revolutionary.  His aesthetic of free improvisation has been read as both progressive and iconoclastic.  It appeared aesthetically opposed to the easier listening and more commercially successful “Cool jazz” at the time.  Coleman thus carries a sort of credibility for many listeners who prefer an “unpolished” or “rough” sort of sound, and thus he has been a sort of cult figure for underground and psychedelic rock musicians who seek authenticity in the austere in addition to younger jazz musicians. 

Affirming that Coleman’s sound might sound rough to some ears is not meant to diminish Coleman’s technique and virtuosity.  He is very much in control of what he’s doing musically, and he’s very consistent.  Part of his virtuosity is indeed the avoidance of a certain kind of techne, the kind one might find in a Paganini violin piece or a hard bop soloist.  His techne is altogether different.  In an interview for the Bonnaroo music festival in 2007, Coleman gives a description of his thinking that can perhaps shed some light on this issue.  It is important first, however, to frame Coleman’s ethos as an historical jazz figure to understand the significance of this interview. It is partly Coleman’s “cult status” that leads the interviewer in the YouTube video to ask him how he feels about playing in front of a “rock and roll audience,” and possibly prompts Coleman to partially evade the question, saying, “I never think about the subject of what I’m doing, I only think about the quality of what I’m doing.”  After this answer, the shot video has been edited, so we don’t get Coleman’s complete answer.  His words pick up again saying,

COLEMAN: So for me, making music is like a form of religion for me because it soothes the heart and increases the pleasure of the brain and most of all it’s very enjoyable to express something that you can hear and can’t see, which is not bad you know and everyone gets the same benefit.  That’s a pretty good equalization there you know plus I’ve been playing so long it’s not ummm…my real concern.  It’s my real concern for the things that I would uh like to perfect in music is to uh heal the suffering, the pain and the uh and the uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely?


COLEMAN: Yeah solitude, and when you are depressed music seems to be a very good dose of light that cause people to feel lots better. And I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements, you know,  because in the music I do I write out the music but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.


What’s important here is that Coleman distinguishes between Harmolodics and composing. The interviewer then asks Coleman to explain his theory or approach.


COLEMAN: Well, between language, what we call electronic words that go through different frequencies to express thoughts and moods and most of all look at the amount of instrumentation that sound is involved with if you count all the instruments people use for sound it’s almost impossible to stop counting I mean from a whistle to a big tuba to a violin to a sax to …there’s many things that contribute like make a contribution to sound to sound and the most eternal thing that makes a contribution to sound is your voice, the mouth. Isn’t it?

INTERVIEWER: Constantly.

COLEMAN: Yeah, and not only that but imagine how many different words that have a different meaning for the same sound in the form of human you know I don’t know how many languages human on the planet speak but it must go up at least into the thousands right? and it’s nothing but sound making a relationship to meaning for your brain and who you are in relationship to what your environment and what your race is.

 So basically I guess you could say, sound is to people what the sun is to light…something like that. You know, which I don’t sound like I’m being very intellectual because I’m not but, you know, from the fact that I’ve been in this business for a long time and this is a moment of many moments that I’ve had and I’m always trying to make sure that they become beneficial by not taking up all your time to say something that doesn’t mean anything or to say something that someone is going to hear that might be more interesting than doing something they haven’t thought about. I mean I guess what I’m trying to say is human is more important than technology. I guess that’s what I’m saying. You know and it’s good that both subjects is appealing to what we call professionals…something like that right?


Is Ornette Coleman being cryptic or evasive in this interview?  On one hand he sounds entirely sincere; on the other hand, his answers rarely land in any sort of concrete statement. 

Transcribed, it’s especially apparent that Coleman’s words are full of ironic turns: phrases like “I don’t sound like I’m being intellectual because I’m not” in the midst of sweeping statements about the nature of sound and humanity and “human is more important than technology” or “I’m always trying to make sure that they become beneficial by not taking up all your time to say something that doesn’t mean anything.” 

It is worth considering that Coleman’s answer may itself be a performance of what he means by Harmolodics.  For example, the thoughts change mid-sentence instead of landing. “You know?” and “Right?” offer interjections that encourage interaction from his interlocutor.  Coleman is noticeably responsive to the interviewer, affirming the interviewer’s answers to his questions, and he seems to punctuate his thoughts with open-ended questions. He doesn’t show great concern with the answer (uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely? – “solitude” in this case), but Coleman engages with the answer, embraces it and carries on.  He improvises his answer without landing in a concrete statement which would sound like a piece of composed material.  His associations continue a conversation without fully synthesizing a dialectical relationship of question-answer.  There is forward movement, but it is hard to track the conversation’s progress. Of course, the conversation is slightly informal; nevertheless, one can glean important themes from the conversational content.

The notion of “progress” is central to discussions about Coleman in terms of musical “progress,” which in jazz music is often problematically aligned with many kinds of progress: i.e. social progress, the intellectualization and domestication of jazz, fusion of African American and European musical aesthetics, and professional technical virtuosity among musicians.  At the same time, critics have heard Coleman’s music as challenging notions of progress. When Ornette Coleman’s quartet played a series of concerts at The Five Spot in New York in the 1950s, Coleman’s name became metonymic for a style of music eventually referred to as the “New Thing,” the “avant-garde,” and eventually “free jazz.”  Opinions about Coleman and his music ranged from calling him a genius to calling him a charlatan. 

In a world of “progressive jazz,” Coleman’s music challenged the very notion of progress, which had come to be associated both with the technical virtuosity required of jazz musicians as well as narratives of social progress and democracy by jazz critics and the U.S. government, who used jazz as generic symbol of democratic art that was – uniquely “American” – by sending established jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong on diplomatic missions (Anderson).  Because socially progressive critics (John Tynan at Down Beat, for example who praised Coleman early on) aligned the music with both civil rights progress and the economic growth as a result of fighting communism, Coleman’s music and free jazz was often read as iconoclastic (insofar as it destroyed the “image” of jazz), anti-American, and by the early (1960s), anti-jazz.[1] 

And yet, Coleman who is often heralded as the one who brought free improvisation to the jazz world, claimed to merely have a new system of composing music.  Does this “new” method imply progress?  Coleman calls his system “Harmolodics” and in 1983 he defined it: “Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.  Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the groups that come from the placing and spacing of ideas” (54-55).  Unlike the conversational example above, this statement  was written and published in Down beat magazine. While it is easy to critique this definition as being vague and fundamentally anti-systematic or relativistic, a generous reading of it sees commonalities across many aesthetic and intellectual disciplines throughout the twentieth century.  Coleman’s Harmolodics resonates with and thematizes much of the philosophical and academic struggles of the twentieth century, namely: language and representation, ontology and epistemology, modernism and postmodernism.  I believe Coleman’s theory has something significant to offer discourses centered on these topics.

Perhaps the best way into these large discursive themes is to ask: what is the difference between method and attitude?  This question is a theme in twentieth-century western thought.  It has long been present in philosophy, particularly in phenomenology.  In The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty discusses the tension between a philosophy that is a “rigorous science” which still opposes a “natural attitude,” eventually claiming that “the opinion of the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or a style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy” (vii-viii).  Husserl’s epoche (phenomenological reduction) becomes a heuristic for engagement with a world in which experience is always already filtered by consciousness – intentionality.  In other words, phenomenology in the mid twentieth-century attempted to discuss in language what precedes linguistic articulation. The articulated is always already after the fact. Composition is always an ordering of the world.  Phenomenologists sought through rigorous attention to document the process of perception as close to real-time as possible in order to get at fundamentals of being.  While scientific, they recognized science itself as both attitude and method.

Or to speak to the literary disciplines, Blanchot in The Space of Literature claims that creating of the work is a kind of channeling.

A work is only a work when it becomes the intimacy shared by someone who writes it and someone who reads it, a space violently opened up by the contest between to power to speak and the power to hear. And the one who writes is, as well, one who has ‘heard’ the interminable and incessant, who has heard it as speech, has entered into understanding with it, has lived with its demand […] He has mastered it by imposing measure. (37)

Coleman during an improvisation would then be seeking the space where one can hear the composition. It is both lived and processual.  And his audience receives Coleman’s hearing.

A “popular” or secularized theme of such division between method and attitude often gets divided along the academic lines of “hard sciences” versus “soft” or “humanities,” quantitative versus qualitative, etc.  Scientific method relies on reproducibility of facts for verifiable evidence.  An attitude is more subjective and speaks to the underlying beliefs behind the method.  As academic departmentalization continues to become interdisciplinary in the twenty-first century, as scientific method (or positivism in a general sense) has been recognized by even “hard” scientists as an attitude, the question of attitude versus method acquires a theoretical exigency.  Namely, in the university responsible for tracking and storing knowledge, Francis Bacon’s method holds enormous rhetorical weight, even when it is seen as limited by both the sciences and the humanities. While such views do not make scientific method moot, they merely suggest that as a metaphysical description, it became limited – even lost the hermeneutic aspects present in Bacon’s New Organon.  In any case, a new metaphysics (or return to metaphysics)  became necessary.  One hears some of this in Coleman’s words from the video. 

Or, to choose another grand theme which Coleman’s theory parallels: postmodernism, in all its complexity, created a condition which has become a part of our facticity, to be dealt with whether we like it or not. This historical condition can be thematized philosophically in the twentieth century as the reworking of metaphysics as a necessary worldview for a world that must be experienced vicariously.  In a decentralized world without fixed power structures, subjectivity becomes an awareness of subjectivity’s constructed-ness.  One does not have the “original” experience; rather, experience is mediated by a “consciousness of…” and that consciousness plays avatar to the murkier aspects of self, indeed, calling the very notion of self a composition after an unremembered event – perhaps the event of membering.  The reintegration of metaphysics – a subject considered passé or irrelevant to positivists in the early twentieth century – became necessary for a world based on differing doxas.  Postmodernism is a kind of metaphysical description. 

This reintegration of metaphysics can be seen in the use of semiotics to account for the invisible.  Thinkers like Saussure, Derrida, and Lacan all attempted to make metaphysics applicable through the study of language and signs, and there is no wonder why their thought has been so pervasive across academic disciplines.  From a wide lens, these thinkers’ attention to language and signs thematizes an ongoing and ancient debate between philosophy and rhetoric that has a revitalized exigency in our current world.  For example, in the field of rhetorical criticism, Biesecker, in 1989 suggested the appropriation of Derrida’s deconstruction “method” (or “attitude”?) by rhetorical critics.  In a worldview where everything is construction, everything appears to be rhetorical.  Perhaps rhetoric has not been so self-conscious of its construction since the Renaissance.  In any case, everything appears as potential for rhetorical study of its constructed-ness, even the gaze of the constructor.

The attention to the constructor of meaning, the reader (audience), as implicated in the process of making meaning, creates the necessity for an intensified re-examination of ethos and ethics.  Why do we believe some theorists and not others?  Where is authority in the de-centered world? Is there such thing as a self? Who is responsible?  Is God dead? All these questions arise out of the necessity to relate to differing belief systems in a discursive environment that attempts the impossibility of secularity.  That is, postmodernism is a metaphysics that treats the virtual construction of the world as immanence in which individual subjects locate themselves through narratives of transcendence.  Postmodernism replaces God with the cultural manifestation of an untotalizeable human culture, and with an avid devotion to creating meaning from a world saturated with meaning. The contemporary academic, rhetorical critic, or scientist performs a kind of hermeneutics akin to Jewish midrash – God as an absent presence.

The subject as meaning-maker, as reader-poet, in Barthes’ sense, is central to an examination of the focus on ethics and the reintegration of metaphysics as discursive for contemporary understandings of the world.  When I say reintegration, I only mean it in the sense of metaphysical discourse.  Postmodernism presents itself as a metaphysics, but because scientific positivism inserts itself in the space of religion, making metaphysics passé and exalting a rational humanism (the Frankfurt School’s instrumental reason) which fetishizes, techne as progress, resulting in the political and social horrors of the twentieth century, it leaves people with the same fear of giving up positivism as it must have felt for religious people in England after Origin of the Species

What is needed, however, is not the rejection of positivism in favor of some new religious idol, but the recognition that religious tendencies toward transcendence and immanence remain present in human life.  It does no good to reject religion, spirituality, and mysticism, in favor of a flawed rationality that presents itself as divine.  It does no good to build institutional structures based on an enlightenment logic which only remains a perspectival frame of reality.  It does help to imagine ways of being beyond this, and Ornette Coleman’s aesthetics, while not being the answer, point in this direction.  In this sense, my reading of Coleman’s aesthetics is both progressive and cyclical, for he points to a worldview that to some may seem pre-modern, but it is a sensibility which has never been un-present during modernism; it has simply not been taken seriously by modernism.  

In order to understand the significance of Ornette Coleman’s aesthetics as I’m framing them, it is necessary to understand a bit of the scene or cultural milieu in which he emerges.  While I argue that Coleman’s aesthetics are progressive, they are not progressive in the traditional sense used by jazz critics.  Both musicians and critics at numerous points in jazz history have been interested in the idea that the music is constantly evolving and that this has been the result of both conscious acts by artists as well as the synecdochic tendency the music contains as a potential symbol for democratic values.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the epithet of the “moldy-fig” was applied to someone who preferred “Classic” or New Orleans jazz to that of modern or bebop.  In his biography of Charlie Parker, for example, Carl Woideck asserts that

a construct that was popular in jazz until the late 1960s held that jazz was constantly improving; that further harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic sophistication and complexity advanced jazz; that each new style superseded the previous one, e.g., New Orleans jazz was made obsolete by the swing style that was then superseded by modern jazz.  The devotees of early jazz styles felt that the music had classic qualities of simplicity, directness, honesty, and joy that were lacking in later styles. (137)

The idea that jazz exhibits an evolutionary process is itself ambiguous, but Woideck’s statement is clearly more directed toward the technicality of music.  The process of acquiring technique in reference to a musician and his or her instrument is undeniably evolutionary.  But the concept of evolution when applied to musical aesthetics becomes complex.  A linear evolution toward technical virtuosity can only become more and more esoteric, complex, and perhaps difficult for the average listener.  In this sense, the jazz of the late fifties was heading toward the same sort of crisis that modernist painters went through, namely a trend toward abstraction and greater emphasis on subjectivity.

            While avant-garde musicians like Coleman may have been initially criticized for having a lack of technique and thus been considered archaic in their aesthetic views, the musicians often thought of their innovations as being evolutionary in a different way.  While this doesn’t mean they weren’t concerned with technique, their innovations took a more subjective than objective turn and as a result their innovations were harder to calculate.  In retrospect, Ornette Coleman says,

I realized that if I changed the harmonic structure while someone else is doing something, they couldn’t stay there, they’d have to change with me.  So I would bring that about myself a lot, knowing where I could take the melody.  In other words, I could create a showcase for the melody and then show the distance between where I could go and still come directly back to that melody, instead of trying to show the different inversions of the same thing. (In Litweiler 43)  

Coleman intentionally directed the music toward his own musical statements and diverted people from playing directed at a pre-existing form.  In this sense, Coleman’s playing is rhetorical in a classical sense; as a leader, he made musical assertions that persuade civic action on the part of his band members, maybe not in terms of a state, but definitely in terms of a community.  In playing with Coleman, the other musicians had to give up the game of asserting mastery by establishing their virtuosic ability to play over a pre-given form and now play a “new game,” one that takes place in the moment with the other musicians.  As a result, the musicians’ engagement with each other became more direct. 

Coleman’s aesthetic turn was definitely a different kind of evolution than Woideck describes with the beboppers.  Because it was a more subjective turn, it became more particular to each individual musician’s identity.  While critics at times saw social ideals and ethics embodied in the music (particularly with race and democracy, see Anderson), they weren’t equipped for a subjective turn like Coleman’s that demanded more engagement on everyone’s part. 

While Woideck’s criticism focuses on musical evolution, other critics have seen evolution in the music and aligned the progressive tendencies with socially progressive political theories.  Amiri Baraka, an early advocate of the avant-garde, sees the music as “an aesthetic whose standards and measure are connected irrevocably to the continuous gloss most white Americans have always made over the Negro life in America” (185) and he states that critics need to

reorganize their thinking so that they begin their concern for these musicians by trying to understand why each played the way he did, and in terms of the constantly evolving and re-defined which has informed the most profound examples of Negro music throughout its history. (184)

Baraka not only aligns aesthetic innovation with racial or social progress, he implies that not understanding and supporting the music and musicians is to misunderstand “Negro” music.  The critic’s social responsibility is to understand the artist.  While Baraka sees an evolutionary connection between the music and the African American community, he is not saying that when jazz evolves, it makes previous styles of jazz obsolete.  This makes him different than a critic who sees greater complexity, virtuosity, and harmonic sophistication as the only way to go. Discussing the avant-garde, Baraka states,

The attitudes and emotional philosophy contained in “the new music” must be isolated and understood by critics before any consideration of the worth of the music can legitimately be broached.  Later on, of course, it becomes relatively easy to characterize the emotional penchants that informed earlier aesthetic statements.  After the fact, is a much simpler way to work and think.  For example, a writer who wrote liner notes for a John Coltrane record mentioned how difficult it had been for him to appreciate Coltrane earlier, just as it had been difficult for him to appreciate Charlie Parker when he first appeared. (183)

The ear of the critic evolves as well, and Baraka’s criticism comes from the late sixties.  With Baraka’s sentiments in mind, let us take a look back at Ornette Coleman from the historical vantage point of half a century.


Ornette Coleman, whose aesthetic sensibility asserts the importance of the fusion between the subject’s mind and body, who asserts the necessity for musicians to use “the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison,” may have some wisdom to offer in terms of developing an heuristic method to cope with the theoretical exigencies we find ourselves in.  Perhaps Ornette Coleman’s perspective seems even more appropriate because he is not an academic, yet his music and thought articulates concerns that academics find themselves dealing with.  As such, Coleman’s music and style becomes useful textual study to see his thinking in practice.  In order to help articulate these concerns to an audience of rhetoricians, in my next section of this essay, I will employ some terms from Kenneth Burke’s dramatism to expedite an understanding of Coleman and his place in jazz history for those unfamiliar with Coleman.   


            Looking back at Ornette Coleman’s career over the last fifty years, Coleman has gained widespread acclaim and criticism.  His music undoubtedly changed the way people thought about and played jazz.  His credentials are no longer in question.  That said, his music has never been considered “mainstream,” even in the commercial jazz scene.  As a result, Coleman’s aesthetics have come to be aligned with iconoclasm, revolution, challenging the status quo; and his ethos has been romanticized.  To critics of his music, Coleman’s music represents a decline in jazz music sales and jobs for musicians.  He has often been seen as the starving, marginalized, unappreciated genius.  It is partly because of this image that Coleman ended up playing at the Bonnaroo Festival in 2007, which would normally be a venue for rock bands.

            It is helpful here to consider Coleman’s ethos in the dramatistic terms of Kenneth Burke.  The scenic structure of the Bonnaroo Festival situates Coleman as an almost stereotypical “jazz legend.”  He is both protagonist and mythic or cult hero.  He’s a hero of course, because he has weathered the storms of critical disapproval over an entire career without ever compromising his artistic integrity.  He has never become famous enough to “sell out,” yet he has remained productive and at times received prestigious awards.  The scene – agent ratio, as Burke’s pentad might suggest, is one where Coleman as agent is both Coleman the man as well as Coleman consubstantiated into cultural ether.

            In Burke’s terms, Coleman’s substance as an artist must be in part defined by the scene which supports him.  This is partly because through etymological study, one finds a paradox at the basis of the root for the word “substance.”  Sub, meaning “under,” is combined with stance – to stand.  Substance would literally not be the subject (or object), but the thing that holds up the subject.  This also applies to the word “subject.”  As Burke explains in A Grammar of Motives

For instance, the key philosophic term, sub-ject (in Latin, thrown under) is the companion to the Greek hypokeimenon (underlying), a word that can refer to the subject of a sentence, or to the “sub-strate” of the world (the essential constitution of things, hence indeterminately a kind of basis or a kind of causal ancestor).  The word can also refer to what is assumed as a ground for an argument, in which capacity it serves as a passive for hypotithemi (to place or put under, as a base or foundation, to assume as a principle, take for granted, suppose… (28)

It is not, therefore, merely that Coleman as acting agent exists on a scene (be it a jazz scene, an American aesthetic scene, the Bonnaroo Festival, etc.) but that his stance on that scene is one of rhetor and artist. 

To align the “art” of rhetoric with Coleman as artist is to try to transcend an archaic model of a romantic artist whose subjective dialectic with western society is always entangled with the rise of a market economy – or, as stated earlier, Marxist (still romantic) critiques of that economy.  It is also to suggest that rhetoric and aesthetics be considered close together while simultaneously outside of a tradition which places aesthetics in the realm of an aristocratic sensibility where the “refined” person is an arbiter of taste and a creator of culture.  While aesthetics and rhetors may be related to the formation of ideology, they cannot be seen as having a strictly causal link.  Because both the subject (rhetor) and the audience  cannot be accurately accounted for as fixed entities, critical methods must be developed which account for less static views of rhetor and audience.  As Maurice Charland has claimed,

A transformed ideology would require a transformed subject (not a dissolving of subjectivity).  Such a transformation requires ideological and rhetorical work.  This can proceed at two levels: (1) it can proceed at the level of the constitutive narrative itself, providing stories that through identificatory principle shift and rework the subject and its motives; (2) it can also proceed at the aesthetic level of what Williams terms the “structure of feeling” and Grossberg describes as the affective apparatus.”  Since, as Fisher observes, the truth of a narrative resides in its “fidelity,” which is an aesthetic quality, new true narratives become possible as new modes of aesthetic experience emerge and gain social meaning. (148) 

Understanding Ornette Coleman and his aesthetics in a new way would be to articulate a social meaning.  The method would then be to consider the fidelity of his aesthetics.  However, while Charland refers to fidelity as an aesthetic quality, it is also very much an ethical quality.  It is not only necessary to consider Ornette Coleman’s rhetorical / artistic stance as aesthetic, but also as an ethical stance.  Such a stance cannot be considered from outside of historical (scenic) forces at work in Coleman’s own life; it would be critically irresponsible to consider Coleman a fixed subject. 

Therefore, in order to avoid fixing Coleman as a static subject, it is necessary to consider his stance in fluid terms, which Burke’s criticism again provides, namely ambiguity and identification.  If we accept Coleman’s subjectivity as unfixed, we accept a certain amount of ambiguity.  Ambiguity, for Burke, is not to be avoided, but embraced as something naturally present, since it is the very controlling gaze which defines an entity as if it were apart from the world which fixes a subject as an object.  Critically, this means we can discuss Coleman the man as well as Coleman the legend, myth, or ethos.  This is not difficult to do with Coleman since he has already achieved a certain legendary status as both artist and scapegoat for critical opinions.  However, it is these very representational readings of Coleman that have helped to fix a cultural identity for him which this essay argues against.  How then do we get at Coleman the agent without using a positivistic lens that brackets him from the world?  Perhaps we can start with his agency.

By agency, Burke means how the agent accomplishes his or her act.  For Ornette Coleman, this is his theory of Harmolodics.  The problem (or perhaps the virtue?) in discussing Coleman’s Harmolodic theory it that is famously vague.  Indeed, when Coleman is asked to explain it, it seems like he starts from scratch every time.  To reiterate: in the early 1980s Coleman says,

Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.  Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the groups that come from the placing and spacing of ideas.   

 And then in 2007 in an interview for the Bonnaroo Festival, when asked to explain Harmolodics, Coleman says,

Well, between language, what we call electronic words that go through different frequencies to express thoughts and moods and most of all look at the amount of instrumentation that sound is involved with if you count all the instruments people use for sound it’s almost impossible to stop counting I mean from a whistle to a big tuba to a violin to a sax to there’s many things that contribute like make a contribution to sound to sound and the most eternal thing that makes a contribution to sound is your voice, the mouth. Isn’t it?

Later in the interview, Coleman comes to a cadence: “I mean I guess what I’m trying to say is human is more important than technology.”  While these two explanations seem quite different at first glance, the common thread is “one’s own” voice.  Harmolodics seems to be a theory of subjectivity.  In this sense, it is a Burkean act.

How can a theory of subjectivity be an act?  One answer to this is that musicians who have performed with Coleman claim to have learned what it is, so there is some amount of transfer being claimed.  Another answer is that it is something willed by a subject.  The location of Coleman’s Harmolodics as a theory implies that it is not merely his own personal style.  It also means that it is, at least in part, persuasive.  The implication here is that the purpose of the act is that it be communicated.  It does not necessarily work for Coleman to perform the way he does alone (with a band, not solo).  It seems necessary that other musicians listen and follow.  There is a sort of communication at work.  This communication, in Burkean terms, is identification.

Identification in the Harmolodic sense seems to be about recognition, which is what Amiri Baraka claims is necessary for the critic.  Identification is somewhere between will and recognition.  It is a shared space.  James L. Golden summarizes:

Identification, at its simplest level, may be a deliberate device, or a means, as when a speaker identifies his audience.  But identification can also be an “end,” as when people earnestly yearn to identify themselves with some group or other.” They are thus not acted upon by a conscious external agent, but may act upon themselves to this end. Identification “includes the realm of transcendence. (250)

Identification is not necessarily willed.  It is not persuasion in any normal sense of the term.  From this point of view it may be easier to guess at Coleman’s purpose for his harmolodic act, which would be to create a space for human transcendence of the existential confines of subjectivity. Again…

COLEMAN: So for me, making music is like a form of religion for me because it soothes the heart and increases the pleasure of the brain and most of all it’s very enjoyable to express something that you can hear and can’t see, which is not bad you know and everyone gets the same benefit.  That’s a pretty good equalization there you know plus I’ve been playing so long it’s not ummm…my real concern.  It’s my real concern for the things that I would uh like to perfect in music is to uh heal the suffering, the pain and the uh and the uh what is it called when you’re…when you’re lonely?


COLEMAN: Yeah solitude, and when you are depressed music seems to be a very good dose of light that cause people to feel lots better. And I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements because in the music I do I write out the music but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.

In Burkean terms, Ornette Coleman’s gesture of Harmolodics is both a rhetorical gesture and an ethical gesture.  It is difficult to separate the gesture from his ethos, yet it is meant to be communicated.  In a real sense, Coleman, who views his work as a “religion,” something spiritual that you can hear but not see, presents aesthetics at a fundamentally ethical level where, through identification, a sort of transcendence of personal self occurs. 

            The implication of art working in this way is fundamentally ethical, and if it is ideological, it is not necessarily in tune with current American values.  This is not to say that it is not fundamentally civic; it is very civic. But it is civic with a view of subjectivity that is fluid.  If it is progressive, it is toward a worldview which assumes cooperation, space for the other, and communication.  If it is cathartic, it purges a view of isolated identity that current American ideology touts as fundamentally valuable – the individual. In Coleman’s system the individual is valued but not praised, just as the individual’s transcendence through identification is not considered a goal.  The ethical act for him remains on the part of the rhetor, it is not something that can be prescribed to the audience, only something suggested to the audience.  Identification becomes the method of connecting with the audiences while simultaneously avoiding being fixed by that critical audience.  Coleman’s aesthetics are not sacrificial.  He does not promote the artist as a Christ-like figure (this would be a more romantic view).  He does, however, suggest an ethical teaching and communication through art to relieve suffering.  His “poetics,” then serves to delight and teach, in the Aristotelian sense.  Take, for example, an open letter to Down Beat Magazine by Coleman in 1967.  Coleman asks, “What should be the goal of a musician who must suffer the results of the music business attitude that musicians should be starving artists who must never feel that the music business is merely another market in which the goals are only social for those whom the business approves?”  He then asks:

What about the value of that musician’s work to the less social, who have no way of knowing what the musician’s value is to other musicians or to an audience – on all levels of music outlets and intakes? How does one play or write music today, since there is a vast number of nonwriters and nonperformers who might not like music and whose only contribution to it is to make money and gain social prestige from it?  Example: I was once told by a very social record producer that a musician shouldn’t expect to make a living from his records.  Yet as he told me this, he was making a good living from records musicians had made for him. (19)

Coleman’s use of the word “social” in these passages is interesting.  It does not seem to be used in the sense of socially good, but rather as a critique of those who use music for personal gain or prestige.  Because economics come into play here, there is almost an inversion of socialism and capitalistic avarice.  He is pointing to something beyond the Cold War binary:

I do wish, though, to speak of my own experience, since critics, record companies, booking agents, magazines, and the press in general have caused me to investigate my goals as a human, because my life is in part a living that allows all to attack or praise that which has as its title the word “art” and as its heart, love.


Whatever it is that makes some of us smarter or more fortunate than our fellow human brothers, I don’t believe God wants one human to destroy his brother because that brother is less fortunate.  That is why I’m writing this to my musical brothers and audience, so we will learn the meaning of living with all without trying to get away from those who feel only socially connected to us so they can use us.

Coleman interestingly does not fight directly against the “social” critic or businessman, instead he suggests that musicians and audiences understand instead of try to escape the way things are.  He then ends his letter on a much more critical note, one that speaks to the academic world of postmodernism and post-colonialism as well as calling on a civic audience – America.  Coleman is anything but complacent.

One who is suffering from an imperfection of any music expression has only his own conviction to accuse.  But when that music expression has had an outsider decide its value, and that outsider uses that musical expression to condemn a social thought, the result is only hate, cheating and loss of music value.  So why don’t we Americans, who have a duty to our neighbor and to our mother country, get off this war-jazz, race-jazz, poverty-jazz, and b.s. and let the country truly become what it is known as (GOD country) – unless we fear God has left and we must make everyone pay for His leaving? I am sure if we prayed, He’d at least give the place back to the Indians because it isn’t going to mean anything to us anymore if we find that we are hating each other.  Maybe God will let us all go back home.

In this passage, the use of the word “social” describes the communicative potential of music.  This potential is undermined by a culture which locates it as something it is not, in this case, having a quantified value in a market system.  True musical value, for Coleman, cannot be determined by an outsider.  This conception is in line with Baraka’s assertion that critics of avant-garde musicians must seek to understand the musicians as well as the music.

In a broader sense, Coleman’s thoughts resound with the intellectual struggles of the twentieth century, especially as they have played out in the academic world.  When Coleman moves to a collective voice, “we Americans,” he aligns himself with an enlightenment project that Native Americans do not, according to him, participate in.  It is unclear how much the cultural myth of manifest destiny play’s into Coleman’s conception of America as “GOD-country,” but he clearly feels ambivalent about the whole project.  In certain ways, Coleman’s question about God’s absence resounds with Nietzsche’s philosophy and French post-humanism and post-structuralism.  What is particularly intriguing is a longing for something pre-modern, the return home.  This move is more similar to Maurice Blanchot’s discussions describing Heraclitus as having a kind of language that doesn’t quite separate the word from the physical world, and suggesting it may be more of a project of recovering the old rather than making something new.  Blanchot influences the post-structuralists directly here, and when connected to Coleman’s aesthetics, opens a possibility to consider an ethical aesthetics that performs a critique of traditional western thought.

Ornette Coleman’s aesthetic conception of Harmolodics as an ethical move which situates a relationship to being through a creative act (instantiation of self) as a performance or enactment or gesture similar to postmodern and post-structural critiques of modernism and western or occidental reason.  In saying this, I certainly don’t mean to claim that Coleman’s project is “post-structuralist.”  If anything, his work acts as a counterpoint to post-structuralism and implies a gesture or an action, however vague, toward a reality that moves beyond the dialectical framing which situates much of western culture and though in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. 

Occidental reason is traditionally a version of reason which dominates through knowledge, a gaze, or nominative usage of language framing.  In order to clarify this rather large critique briefly, I will point to Jurgen Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, particularly “Lecture VII: Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins,” in which Habermas sets up differences and similarities between Derrida and Heidegger.  In the academic world, Derrida’s work both extends and radically critiques the enlightenment project by showing the unfixed nature of binaries, particularly through language.  Heidegger’s work is most often aligned with the dangers of Nazism, which Benjamin among others has characterized as a combination of aesthetics and politics.  While it is certainly an oversimplification to characterize Heidegger’s work only in terms of his Nazism, the role of aesthetic critique is often located as evidence of ideological patterns, which in some ways is true; however, to only see aesthetics on a macro-level obscures the work of artists like Ornette Coleman and art like avant-garde music, which makes it a point to create space for subjectivity and civic life.  It is important then for criticism to find better ways to discuss the connections between ethics and aesthetics. 

By briefly alluding to Habermas’s critique of Heidegger and Derrida’s work in the relationship Habermas thematizes between these thinkers, I hope to point toward a space where twentieth century philosophical work points to a pre-modern approach similar to Coleman’s wish “to go back home.”   Habermas argues:

Even Derrida does not does not extricate himself from the constraints of the paradigm of the philosophy of the subject.  His attempt to go beyond Heidegger does not escape the aporetic structure of a truth-occurrence eviscerated of all truth-as-validity.  Derrida passes beyond Heidegger’s inverted foundationalism, but remains in its path.  As a result, the temporalized Ursprungphilosophie takes on clearer contours.  The remembrance of the messianism of Jewish mysticism and the abandoned but well-circumscribed place once assumed by the God of the Old Testament preserves Derrida, so to speak,  from the political-moral insensitivity and aesthetic tastelessness of a New Paganism spiced up with Holderlin. (166-7)

Here Habermas praises Derrida’s work both for its clarity and its avoidance of the moral problems associated with Heidegger’s work.  The “remembrance” of messianism is fundamental to Derrida’s hermeneutics, and as Habermas asserts, they are clearly influenced by Emmanuel Levinas, Heidegger’s student and critic.  Messianism is important in understanding Derrida’s argument in Of Grammatology that grammatology, or writing, must replace speech if one is to understand the essence of language (164).  Habermas claims that a messianic relationship informs Derrida’s hermeneutics, not because he is religious (Derrida asserts that that is not his interest here), but because of the metaphor of “the book of nature or the book of the world, which points to the hard-to-read, painstakingly to be deciphered handwriting of God.”  Derrida claims that we never had God’s original text, only fragments of it, which were then lost.  Habermas concludes: “Modernity is in search of the traces of a writing that no longer holds out the prospect of a meaningful whole as the book of nature or Holy Scripture had done. […] the signification remains upon even unintelligible texts, the signs last – matter survives as the trace of a spirit that has vanished” (165).

            What this amounts to, for Derrida, is a critique of a kind of western logocentrism.  It is not simply that the sign differs from the signified, that the word (logos) is different than the sound, but that the word inscribes and preserves signification.  This is a preservation of a process, not of an isolated or fixed artifact, and so while difference must be noted, the connection should never be forgotten or extinguished, hence Derrida’s famous neologism differance – a difference which maintains.  Derrida is optimistic about the potential for writing to preserve the trace: “Because writing mortifies the living connections proper to the spoken word, it promises salvation for its semantic content even beyond the day on which all who can speak and listen have fallen prey to the holocaust” (166).  Derrida’s gesture is ethically informed in the sense that it imagines writing as potential for later meaning, later deciphering, and later communication.  The writer is lost in that deciphering – he or she only remains through a trace of a signifying process. 

Post-colonialism and gender studies have made much of this critique, but it is important to emphasize Derrida’s elenchus, or refutation, of western logocentrism as Socratic and not sophistic.  That is, the point of the refutation for Socrates is to move toward further inquiry, whereas Aristotle “calls fallacies that only appear to be refutations ‘sophistic elenchi’” (Halper 257).  The “aporetic structure,” – or mystifying puzzle which raises questions without offering solutions, which Habermas above says Derrida does not escape from, under Socratic elenchi implies edification and a move toward understanding being in terms of the Good, where morality is not separate from the Greek sense of beauty.  In any case, Derrida’s project at this point is a critique of a version of western reason, but certainly not a complete rejection of the tradition.

Characterized along side this, Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, as well as avant-garde jazz aesthetics, has much in common with the post-structural move.  Perhaps most importantly, Coleman makes ambiguous the relationship between composing and being – which for him is improvising.  He does this by moving beyond ritualized formal harmonic structures which would rhetorically situate or, in a sense, colonize the improviser.  In the Bonnaroo interview, Coleman states:

I think improvising is even freer because everyone gets a different feeling from improvising.  It’s not different where everyone’s hearing the same movements because in the music I do I write out the music, but I write everyone a different part so they can make a contribution to the whole. For me I mean it’s, I don’t call it composing, I’ve been calling it sound grammar and for a better technical part I call it Harmolodics.

Coleman does not want to leave his music conceptualized merely as free improvisation, which might imply a kind of anarchy.  Harmolodics is clearly something in between traditional composing and improvising.  However, Coleman is more interested in creating a space for individual improvisers to work together than in presenting a rigidly defined composition.  In a sense here, he seems to be in line with Duke Ellington’s sensibility of writing specifically for performers in his group. Thus, while I think it’s a mistake to overemphasize Coleman’s music as being radically different than the jazz tradition, his conception is innovative.  Much like the distinction between modern and postmodern, it is wrong to see the post as a negation, and we must look to the earlier figures to understand the later figures.

Many of the innovations in bebop during the 1940s and 1950s centered around superimposing complex harmonic and melodic structures on pre-existing song forms, most notably, the AABA, 32 bar pattern popular with Tin Pan Alley composers.  Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” alone serves as a pattern for hundreds of songs.  Philosophically then, Bebop performs a sort of cultural one-upmanship.  It competes and beats the western musical tradition at its own game.  For that reason, technical virtuosity is a distinguishing feature for late fifties Hard bop.

Hard bop was not the only style present on the jazz scene.  Cool jazz (and later Bossa Nova), eventually associated with the west coast, became a signifier for a white middle class sophisticated leisure and is sometimes framed as an antithesis to Hard bop and Soul Jazz, associated with the east coast and a more “authentically” black experience.  Such framing is a gross oversimplification, and the racializing of the frames, standard in the music industry from the race records of the 1920s and 30s made matters worse.  

While liberal and progressive jazz critics saw progressive and virtuosic jazz performances as proof that the civil rights battle was being fought and won and while the U.S. government was sending Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong on diplomatic missions to advertise capitalism and promote a “non-racist” face for America, free jazz was a rejection of this entire system.  By taking away the formal structure, Coleman takes away the context in which people prove their abilities in the face of an ideological phantasm.  It disrupts all framing mechanisms except the obvious dichotomy between form and free.  It locates the emphasis on the individual musician subject and emphasizes a different kind of virtuosity.  Like Derrida, there is an intimate connection to the subject that does not go away.  There is a move toward a greater account for subjectivity, but it is always a subject in a community for Coleman, just as differance maintains difference by preceding and un-situating subject-object dichotomies.

Coleman’s aesthetics, while definitely favoring the position of a subject, does so from the position of one who has been situated, and so it is also a critique of dichotomies and nominative framing.  The dichotomy between formal and free frames Coleman’s aesthetics as anarchic, which simply inaccurate.  This may be one reason why Coleman throughout the 1960s and 1970s develops his seemingly mystical theory of Harmolodics.  It is a theory which intentionally evades definition.  He seems to be rearticulating it all the time, even as he shifts the name Harmolodics to Sound Grammar.  What gets read as evasiveness is perhaps Harmolodics itself performing its dynamism. 

At the risk of sounding essentialist or traditionally structuralist, it is worth noting that Coleman’s aesthetic aligns with the blues tradition and trickster figures such as Esu / Legba, the master linguist, whom one meets at the crossroads, one who’s very being gives lie to the myth of binaries between traditional western concepts of good and evil.  If Harmolodics is a method, it performs trickster qualities.  Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Signifying Monkey lays out literary descriptions of the crossroads trickster, and yet in the essay “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes,” Gates argues that

No critical theory – be that Marxism, feminism, poststructuralism, Nkrumah’s consciencism, or whatever – escapes the specificity of value and ideology no matter how mediated these may be. To attempt to appropriate our own discourses using Western critical theory “uncritically” is to substitute one form of neocolonialism for another. To begin to do this in my own tradition, theorists have turned to black vernacular tradition […] to isolate the signifying black difference through which to theorize about the so-called Discourse of the Other. (1588)

Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics offer something between black vernacular culture and contemporary theoretical discourse.  To situate him within the blues tradition in a sense seems appropriate.  However, it is also worth considering works like Timothy S. Murphy’s “Composition, Improvisation, Constitution: Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman,” in which Murphy points to Jacques Attali who “suggests that music not only reflects the society in which it is made but also predicts the structural metamorphoses that society will undergo in the future” (75).  Using Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories, Murphy attempts

a demonstration of the fact that the temporality of the music, its prophetic tense, is the paradoxical future perfect, the “it will have been” which is also the tense of the revolution, as Marxist philosophers from Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch to Toni Negri have realized.  In the future perfect the speaker’s future is not conditional but already established, already in the past while still in the future.  The future perfect is no more a tense of objective necessity, however, than is the music the fulfillment of any promise other than its own.  Neither merely happens, though neither is merely the result of subjective intention, will or choice either. Both must be realized, enacted, performed, but this cannot be done in circumstances entirely chosen by their performers.  Music and revolution are only objective inasmuch as they are both material, rather than ideal, forms of hope. (97)

It is clear then, that Coleman’s musical aesthetics have implications for western cultural critiques.  His elenchus, like Derrida’s is a progressive one, and though I find Murphy’s demonstration compelling, I am not sure that the revolutionary enactment of Harmolodics is the same task as that of those Marxist critics.  In fact, I find Coleman’s critique bigger. 

            This paper has argued that Ornette Coleman’s theory of Harmolodics enacts a critique of western culture similar to post-structural and postmodern critiques of enlightenment rationality.  Rather than equating Coleman’s thinking with twentieth-century philosophers, Coleman’s status outside of the academic tradition, and his parallel arguments speak to cultural forces outside of academia which are highly intellectualized within academic circles.  Insofar as Harmolodics is a theory that others besides Coleman enact, it is also a social method for critiquing nominalist framing tendencies among critics and arbiters of culture who locate and define otherness.  In its dynamic performance of trickster-like qualities Harmolodics offers an aesthetic vision that is highly ethical and highly civic, without being prescriptive, and yet still implying individual actions.  This particularly has implications for the field of rhetorical criticism in that Coleman’s Harmolodics attempt a fusion of method, attitude, and being that is transferable through identification.  This implies that more attention should be given toward criticism which focuses on close relationships between an individual’s ethics and aesthetic style. 


Works Cited

Anderson, Iain. This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Baraka, Amiri. “Jazz and the White Critic.” The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader.

Ed. William J. Harris.  New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991.

Biesecker, B. “Rethinking the rhetorical situation within the thematic of differance.Philosophy & Rhetoric. 22. EBSCO, 1989. 110-130.

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Charland, Maurice.  “Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the Peuple Quebecois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 73. EBSCO, 1987. 133-151. 

Coleman, Ornette. “An Interview with Ornette Coleman –Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival 2007.” Youtube. October 29, 2009.

———————– “An Open Letter.” Down Beat Magazine. 34: 11 (1 June 1967): 19.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Writing, “Race,” and the Difference it Makes.” The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998.

Habermas, Jurgen.  The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Fredrick G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Halper, Edward C. “Elenchus.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.  2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.    

Golden, James L. The Rhetoric of Western Thought. 9th ed. Iowa: Kendall / Hunt, 2007.

Jost, Ekkehard. Free Jazz. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.

Kofsky, Fank.  Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.

Litweiler, John.  The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958.  New York: Da Capo, 1984.

Murphy, Timothy S. “Composition, Improvisation, Constitution: Forms of Life in the Music of Pierre Boulez and Ornette Coleman.” Angelaki: journal of the theoretical humanities. Vol. 3:2, 1998.

Tynan, John. “Take Five.” Down Beat Magazine. 28 (March 23, 1961): 40.

Woideck, Carl.  Charlie Parker: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP,


[1] The term “anti-jazz” was coined by John Tynan a few years later during a review of a John Coltrane set at the Village Vanguard.  That stint of shows is documented as the now classic Live at the Village Vanguard.  The term referred to a “growing trend” which was incorporating Coleman’s style.  I use Tynan as an example here because, though he was an early supporter of Coleman, his later work would give voice to those frustrated with new music; however, Coltrane’s album does not sound as far out as the label implies.  They play with form, though the improvisations are long.  Who knows what exactly was happening the night Tynan chose to review?

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