Ornette Coleman and the ‘Open text’

Not many people have accused Ornette Coleman’s album ‘Free Jazz’ an easy ride, whether it was the ‘First take‘ (released as a track in it’s own right and only 17 minutes long) – or the seminal album version – covering both sides of a 33 1/3rd rpm long playing vinyl album (subsequently transcribed to a CD providing a single track of nearly 40 minutes – here *). It takes some investment. The double quartet had not rehearsed the piece very much, if at all, and the opening section has that sound that a friend once described to me once as ‘scribbling’; atonal, discordant and lacking in any natural sense of structure and harmony. The opening section – the introduction therefore – is, even after all this time from first tackling it, an effort of will.

I was reminded of this work when I began to study Umberto Eco’s ‘Open Work’, not so much the difficulty of the text, which isn’t easy and not least the introduction by David Robey (which I decided to leave until another time (a time which has yet to arrive)), but with the concept of searching for or, releasing the hold on the narrative. My purpose as an artist had, I thought until getting to grips with this concept, to provide a course for the reader to follow. To direct the flow from tributary to stream, from river to sea and resolve the outcome to a satisfactory – even if troublesome – conclusion, much as a rhythm section might do in a jazz quartet.

Of course I am aware of unresolved works, but most works of art I have encountered through the course of this study have a purposeful purpose. Artists have wanted to lead me somewhere even if it is to face a conclusion of my own drafting directed by them. To connote and denote by the artifices available to them, some I must say more successfully than others, to conclusions that they themselves have probably decided on. I don’t find this in any way a dishonorable act; most works tend to flow, novels, musical scores and photographic artists (most usually in bodies of works, though sometimes in single images); the ebb and flow of narrative to deliver the reader to a place where a question has been posed leaving the reader to think about responding.

Coleman’s work drifts, the initial assemblage of noises transforms after a while upon a bedrock of percussion, to snatches of melody, melodies that perhaps unconsciously form between the players used as they are used to ad-lib with others, the resultant soundscape starting to provide more immediate comprehensive imagery. Listen again, and whether it is familiarity of performance or form, and it becomes easier. The listener becoming more adept at comprehending the piece. It’s a journey.

When I first looked at Larry Sultan’s work some time ago I was reminded of Chekov’s visions of family life; what seemed disrupted visions of a dystopian life in California seemed to have an echo of the late, expiring, Russian bourgeois life, and those connections were made by familiarity in both works through which I was led to a place. Both Sultan and Chekov’s narratives wanted me to explore what they were concerned with, wanted me to consider my reaction to the issues they were interested in. And the connections made are mine alone; Sultan and Chekov, Coleman through Eco. Eco’s ‘Open’ vision is to not declare intent but to provide very minimal vernacular tools to explore personal stories. But I wonder how loose this process can be?

Yellow ribbonc2

By selecting a range of texts for contemplation already some direction has been created. I know from my own first attempt at an ‘open work’ that I have used visual aesthetics to build phrases for example in tone or contrast. I recognised similar structures in Coleman’s work as well as in Freddie Hubbard’s (trumpet). I don’t think I want to extend the corollary with Coleman’s work anymore, after all his is a genius talent and I wouldn’t want to draw comparison with my work, but music is a linear narrative more directed than most, it is never experienced other than in the forward direction and serially; a text though can be experienced in many forms and the time base is under the control mostly by the reader. Forwards or backwards, sideways or reverse, it leaves the author and becomes a new piece of work. Music is ephemeral, text is physical.

I have a sense of ‘floundering’ with this attempt, not knowing if the conscious and deliberate image making which has informed all these images is not deep enough or in fact too deep, I have no depth charting sonar. I have made statements about what the thought processes were when I made them – here – and I can still see them in the images in this post – they are real and palpable to me. However, as I am want to do, I have jumped in at the deep end with a strong sense of how this will inform how I might go about my practice in the future, how, like Anna Fox’s statement about using stories to tell truths, or maybe telling stories about stories.

I asked a tutor very early on in my studies about language, about whether it was necessary to comprehend and then utilise an artistic vernacular in order to communicate to another artist, or maybe just within the artworld as a whole. I didn’t get an answer, but I am now sure that what my purpose has been about is about how I might articulate through imagery, certain ideas and thoughts, about the situation I find myself in the world. I am determined not to find myself constructing polemics about things that I find myself becoming emotional about. I don’t want to make work about things that make me angry, I want to channel my emotion into work that describes how I see things on a smaller scale, but about the biggest issues of love and fidelity and so on, and to do that I have to continue to strive to develop a syntax that is accessible to whomever might read my work. As much as Sultan’s readers can determine isolation in his work, Chekov’s (breaking) society within (breaking) society and, after some investment, a picture derived within from Coleman’s double quartet.


* Free Jazz, owes a lot to abstract expressionism rather than ‘Open Works”


One thought on “Ornette Coleman and the ‘Open text’

  1. Pingback: Assignment One | Body of Work

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