Friday, February 4, 2011

Word Play: Ornette Coleman talks Ornette With Jacques Derrida

Ornette Coleman says what he wants to.
By Barry Johnson

I love UbuWeb. Whenever I'm feel myself drifting into that connect-the-dots, paint-by-the-number, rote rotation through the moments in my life, whenever I need a jolt, I dial up UbuWeb. What is UbuWeb? "UbuWeb is a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts." What can you find there? Stuff weird, stuff wonderful, stuff weirdly and wonderfully perplexing.

But his isn't a post about UbuWeb, it's about something I found on UbuWeb (though it's been circulating around the web recently) -- an interview that Jacques Derrida conducted with Ornette Coleman in 1997. Unfortunately, it's not recorded; but we do have a  transcript (you'll have to download the PDF -- it's there now under the "New Additions" column).

When I saw it on the UbuWeb home page, I seized it immediately. A couple of times now I've brought up Ornette in the same context -- the language games, the evasions, of artists when asked to explain what they do. And I cite the same panel discussion I heard three years ago at the Portland Jazz Festival, most recently in a post on Gerhard Richter's language games. Back in 2008, I hypothesized that Ornette uses language to aid his music making, not to reach an understanding of the world with his interlocutors (at least not those on the panel).

After reading this interview, however, I'm thinking that maybe he talks to people the way he makes music: He poses problems; they are difficult problems, so difficult that he himself can't solve them; he encourages his companions to take a run at the answer or at least respond to the problem in some way; he takes what they say, extends it maybe and then twists it into another puzzle; and so it goes. Despite the questions of his interviewer (if that's the situation he's in), he returns to the theme of the problem that's on his mind: The question is just part of the structure.






This possibility suggested itself at the end of the interview, which I quote here:
Jacques Derrida: Do you think that your musical writing has something fundamental to do with your relation to women?
Ornette Coleman: Before becoming known as a musician, when I worked in a big department store, one day, during my lunch break, I came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world. I had never been confronted with such solitude, and when I got back home, I wrote a piece that I called "Lonely Woman."
JD: So the choice of a title was not a choice of words but a reference to this experience? I'm posing you these questions on language, on words, because to prepare myself for our encounter, I listened to your music and read what the specialists have written about you. And last night I read an article that was in fact a conference presentation given by one of my friends, Rodolphe Burger, a musician whose group is called Kat Onoma. It was constructed around your statements. In order to analyze the way in which you formulate your music, he began from your statements, of which the first was this: "For reasons that I'm not sure of, I am convinced that before becoming music, music was only a word." Do you recall having said that?
OC: No.
That's perfect: Ornette is not going to participate with Derrida in the way Derrida wants. Derrida attempts to direct the conversation a certain way. Ornette takes things the way he wants, maybe the way he thinks is most revelatory. He is looking for maximum freedom, maximum possibility, sure, but maybe something else. Maybe he's treating Derrida as he would a musician -- entreating him to listen hard, to stretch himself, to find a way to help with the problem, no matter that it is unsolvable, open-ended and transitory maybe.

Here's their last exchange:
JD: How do you understand or interpret your own verbal statements? Are they
something important to you?
OC: It interests me more to have a human relationship with you than a musical
relationship. I want to see if I can express myself in words, in sounds that have to do with a human relationship. At the same time, I would like to be able to speak of the relationship between two talents, between two doings. For me, the human relationship is much more beautiful, because it allows you to gain the freedom that you desire, for yourself and for the other.
I like Derrida's last question, which I read alternately as exasperated and just matter-of-fact: Should I pay attention to you when you talk? Do you take this conversation as seriously as I do or have you just been toying with me? A reasonable question for him to ask, irritated or not. And Ornette assures him that though the conceptual investigation Derrida wants to conduct, his experimentation on the mind of Ornette,  may not matter to Ornette, their human relationship does. And that's in spite of this awkward formal arrangement. Ornette transcends the structure, just as he does so frequently in his music.

Nonetheless, I'd have to say that Ornette then contradicts what I suggested earlier -- Derrida as piano player. Well, maybe he does. But that doesn't make me change my mind. It's a contradiction that leads me into further investigation, into further creations of my own, developments of familiar themes that never go away -- freedom, music, language, relationships, the human experience.

Ornette wants to keep those going. He's not connecting dots. He's not painting-by-number. He belongs on UbuWeb.

2 comments:

bastinptc said...

Thanks for the link to this interview, the day after I read an interview Will Oldham did with R Kelly. Surprising pairings, both, but true to that last statement by Coleman.

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