(A page under construction.)
This page is for those interested in my creative process and the theories that guide it. I include this in hopes that some will find it useful rather than needlessly esoteric.
To build a skyscraper, start with triangles.
The triangle is one of the most stable forms in nature, a building block used in architecture throughout the world. Almost every complex structure employs triangles as compositional elements and supports. In sacred geometry, the primary fields of energy around the human body are often described as a three-dimensional Star of David (two tetrahedrons) enclosed in a sphere, with all of these in motion at once. I find the triangle and tetrahedron to be essential ingredients in any practical theory of composition. To speak of music, I propose an equilateral division between harmony, melody, and rhythm. In poetry, the threefold distinction is between logic, sound, and image.
Harmolodics, Jazz, and Ornette Coleman.
I call myself a Harmolodic improviser working with words and music. This word was coined by jazz musician Ornette Coleman, one of my teachers. It is a whimsical neologism for an intuitive process which is beyond words, and it is used almost exclusively by Coleman and his associates. For these reasons it is often mocked. However, I have found great benefit from this theory and I advocate for its more general use. “Harmolodic” is a combination of the words “harmony,” “motion,” and “melodic.” In traditional music theory, this equates to harmony, rhythm, and melody.
We begin with the basic idea is that these three elements of music are of equal importance. This is nothing new, but it was born afresh in the jazz world because it represents the meeting of traditional European and African musical cultures. Traditional European music has a hierarchy of harmony, melody, and rhythm, in that order. Traditional African music runs in the opposite order: rhythm supercedes melody, with harmony as a distant third concern. The meeting of these two traditions in the United States created a restless music that swings back and forth between dense rhythms and dense harmonies, with melody often serving as the mediator.
However, because of the huge differentials in power between enslaved Africans and their European-descended owners, the prevailing tendency in jazz has been to prioritize harmony. The written chord changes of songs often become a roadmap for the improvising jazz musician, and many of the historical breakthroughs in jazz have dealt with increasingly complex chord changes and how best to navigate them. Coleman is widely known for his choice to play without pre-written chord changes, instead making up new harmonies in the moment. This startles many people and makes his music very demanding for the listener as well as for the player. To me, this presents a counterweight to historical pressures.
Coleman’s music is mostly grounded in melody, which to me is a meeting place between harmony and rhythm. A good melody implies a harmony and rhythm. In a sense, the listener can already hear a harmony and rhythm based on a melodic line. What exactly that listener will imagine as accompaniment will vary widely according to cultural context. In a culture where chanting or monophonic composition is emphasized (such as Japan and “native” America) the melody may be heard on its own or with very simple percussion. In a culture where homophonic composition is emphasized (such as Western Europe and “white” America), dense chords will be imagined to cradle or support the melody as it progresses. In a culture that emphasizes polyrhythms (such as West Africa and “black” America) a melody is explored with complex phasing effects that set counter-rhythms and counter-rotations in motion.
How does this relate to poetry? (Or, Poesis and Ezra Pound.)
In the realm of poetry, I find a similar balance of powers. In place of harmony, melody, and rhythm, I would use logic, image, and sound. In this I am following Ezra Pound’s theory of poetic composition. He labels logic as “logopoeia”, image as “phanopoeia”, and sound as “mellopoeia,” These names are drawn from the Greek- our word “poetry” is descended from the Greek “poesis”, which simply means “to make.” Every poem is made of these three elements.
To be continued throughout the year…