Remembering A Genius.


While living in Japan during the transition from the 20th to 21st century I was extremely fortunate enough to become friend/mentee of artist Shozo Shimamoto, a member of the legendary art collective the GUTAI (1956 – 1972). GUTAI art could be characterized by gestural and bodily abstraction in the leaving of various types of traces, including the use of nude female assistants covered in ink directed across the canvas (Jpn: nyōtaku). Shimamoto created a number of important GUTAI works that would inspire such renowned international artists as Allen Kaprow, Yoko Ono, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, and many others. He was called one of the four most important artists of the 20th century (along with Lucio Fontana, John Cage, and Jackson Pollock) by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and his work is on permanent display at the Tate Modern (London), the National Museum of Modern Art (Rome), the Art Center of Milan, the Paris Gallery, the Ca’Pesaro International Gallery of Modern in Venice, and elsewhere.

What is not mentioned in official sources though is how Shimamoto was a kind genius always at the center of experimental art and avant-garde music activities in the Hanshin region of western Japan. During the time I was around him his gallery and workspace were central hubs of activity, filled with local and international artists, like a clearing house of essential art knowledge. It was this lively and enriching environment that Shimamoto created that inspired so much interdisciplinary activity around him. It was always the highlight of my week to go visit Shimamoto Sensei and see what was occurring in his studio as well as who was working on what. A fellow artist and Shimamoto mentee named Takeshi and I became fast friends, and we went on long walks throughout Osaka and its suburbs and talked for hours and hours.

So in memory of my beloved “Uncle” Shimamoto (R.I.P. 1928 – 2013) I like to annually repost the GUTAI Manifesto, a document published in the art magazine Geijitsu Shincho (Dec. 1956), a month or so after its official proclamation by founder Jiro Yoshihara (co-founded by Shimamoto). The document raised some interesting questions about art and the ‘spirit,’ which also might be relevant to discussions of musical improvisation and so on.


(Yoshihara, Jiro)

With our present awareness, the arts we have known up to now appear to us in general to be fakes fitted out with a tremendous affectation. Let us take leave of these piles of counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops.

These objects are in disguise and their materials such as paint, pieces of cloth, metals, clay or marble are loaded with false significance by human hand and by way of fraud, so that, instead of just presenting their own material, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.

Lock these corpses into their tombs. Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other. The material is not absorbed by the spirit. The spirit does not force the material into submission. If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice. Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.

Art is the home of the creative spirit, but never until now has the spirit created the material. The spirit has only ever created the spiritual. Certainly the spirit has always filled art with life, but this life will finally die as the times change. For all the magnificent life which existed in the art of the Renaissance, little more than its archaeological existence can be seen today.

What still keeps that vitality, even if passive, may be primitive art or the art created after Impressionism. These are things in which either, due to skillful application of the paint, the deception of the material had not quite succeeded, or else, like Pointillist or Fauvist, those pictures in which the materials, although used to reproduce nature, could not be murdered after all. Today, however, they are no longer able to call up deep emotion in us. They already belong to a world of the past.

Yet what is interesting in this respect is the novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture of the past – which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters in the course of the centuries. This is described as the beauty of decay, but is it not perhaps that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics? The fact that the ruins receive us warmly and kindly after all, and that they attract us with their cracks and flaking surfaces, could this not really be a sign of the material taking revenge, having recaptured its original life? In this sense I pay respect to Pollock’s and Mathieu’s works in contemporary art. These works emit the loud outcry of the material, of the very oil or enamel paints themselves. These two artists grapple with the material in a way which is completely appropriate to it and which they have discovered due to their talent. This even gives the impression that they serve the material. Differentiation and integration create mysterious effects.

Recently, Tominaga Soichi and Domoto Hisao presented the activities of Mathieu and Tapi? in Informel art, which I found most interesting. I do not know all the details, but in the content presented, there were many points I could agree with. To my surprise, I also discovered that they demanded the immediate revelation of anything arising spontaneously and that they are not bound by the previously predominant forms. Despite the differences in expression compared to our own, we still find a peculiar agreement with our claim to produce something living. I am not sure, though, about the relationship between the conceptually defined pictorial elements like colours, lines, shapes, in abstract art and the true properties of the material in Informel art. As far as the denial of abstraction is concerned, the essence of their declaration was not clear to me. In any case, it is obvious to us that purely formalistic abstract art has lost its charm, so that the Gutai Art Society founded three years ago was accompanied by the slogan that they would go beyond the borders of abstract art and that the name Gutaiism (concretism) was chosen. Above all, we had to search for a centrifugal approach, instead of the centripetal one seen in abstract art.

In those days we thought, and indeed still do think today, that the most important merits of abstract art lie in the fact that it has opened up the possibility to create a new, subjective shape of space, one which really deserves the name creation.

We have decided to pursue the possibilities of pure and creative activity with great energy. We tried to combine human creative ability with the characteristics of the material in order to concretize the abstract space.

When the abilities of the individual were united with the chosen material in the melting pot of psychic automatism, we were overwhelmed by the shape of space still unknown to us, never before seen or experienced. Automatism naturally made the image, which did not occur to us. Instead of relying on our own image, we have struggled to find an original method of creating that space.

The works of our members will serve as examples. Toshiko Kinoshita is actually a teacher of chemistry at a girls’ school. She created a peculiar space by allowing chemicals to react on filter paper. Although it is possible to imagine the results beforehand to a certain extent, the final results of handling the chemicals can not be established until the following day. The particular results and the shape of the material are in any case her own work. After Pollock many Pollock-imitators appeared, but Pollock’s splendor will never be extinguished. The talent of invention deserves respect.

Kazuo Shiraga placed a lump of paint on a huge piece of paper, and started to spread it around violently with his feet. For about the last two years art journalists have called this unprecedented method “the Art of committing the whole self with the body.” Kazuo Shiraga had no intention at all of making this strange method known to the public. He had merely found the method, which enabled him to confront and unite the material he had chosen with his own spiritual dynamics. In doing so he achieved an extremely convincing result.

In contrast to Shiraga, who works with an organic method, Shozo Shimamoto has been working with mechanical manipulations for the past few years. The spray pictures created by smashing a bottle full of paint, or the large surface made in a single moment by firing a small, hand-made cannon filled with paint by means of an acetylene gas explosion, etc., display a breathtaking freshness.

Other works which deserve mention are those of Yasuo Sumi produced with a vibrator or Toshio Yoshida, who uses only one single lump of paint. All their actions are full of a new intellectual energy which demands our respect and recognition.

The search for an original, undiscovered world also resulted in numerous works in the so-called object form. In my opinion, conditions at the annual open-air exhibitions in the city of Ashiya have contributed to this. That these works, created by artists who are confronted with many different materials, differ from the objects of Surrealism can be seen simply from the fact that the artists tend not to give them titles or to provide interpretations. The objects in Gutai art were, for example, a painted, bent iron plate (Atsuko Tanaka) or a work in hard red vinyl in the form of a mosquito net (Tsuruko Yamazaki), etc. With their characteristics, colours and forms, they were constant messages about the materials.

Our group does not impose restrictions on the art of its members, letting them make full use of their creativity. For instance, many different experiments were carried out with extraordinary activity such as art felt with the entire body, art which could only be touched, Gutai music (in which Shozo Shimamoto has been doing interesting experiments for several years) and so on. Another work by Shozo Shimamoto is like a bridge which shakes everytime you walk over it. Then a work by Saburo Murakami which is like a telescope you can enter to look up at the heavens, and an installation made of plastic bags with organic elasticity, etc. Atsuko Tanaka started with a work of flashing light bulbs which she called “Clothing.” Sadamasa Motonaga worked with water, smoke, etc. Gutai art put the greatest importance on all daring steps which lead to an undiscovered world. Sometimes, at first glance, we are compared with and mistaken for Dadaism, and we ourselves fully recognize the achievements of Dadaism. But we think differently, in contrast to Dadaism, our work is the result of investigating the possibilities of calling the material to life.

We shall hope that there is always a fresh spirit in our Gutai exhibitions and that the discovery of new life will call forth a tremendous scream in the material itself.



A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa (Pt. 1).

A Beginner’s Guide To Frank Zappa
Song Overview

Let’s start with a simple question: who was Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)? And why was there so much fuss about him? Some people thought he was this amazing genius, this sparkling god of rock. Others thought he was a greasy, anti-social, foul-mouthed guitarist who made loud, occasionally overly sexualized music: someone who supposedly took delight in “spoiling” polite society. The rest most likely think he is something in between. So what was he was he? The answer depends on what you believe about religion, politics, music, economics, gender, race, religion, anthropology, technology, and everything else one can think about or wrap a guitar note around. So if you have never thought about Frank Zappa once or ever heard a single note of his music, I highly encourage you to keep on reading for a bit. I guarantee by the time we finish, you will get to know Frank Zappa to a small degree and will like what you hear.

Frank Zappa was an American rock guitarist and composer mainly active from the mid-Sixties to the late-Eighties. What made him so interesting and so polarizing was that he created a great quantity (and quality) of material. There was almost literally not a style of music that he could not, did not, or partially include in his writing, often in humorous ways. For example, it was common for Zappa to interject comically harmonized brass arrangements of 20th century symphonic themes as interludes between his own hard rock songs during his 1988 tour, creating a mélange of sound that was both technically brilliant and often hilarious. He also recombined and reintroduced musical or lyric material from previous works, sometimes from many decades earlier (“The Torture Never Stops”, “Zoot Allures”, “(More) Trouble Every Day”, etc.) in fascinating new ways as part of his overall working concept, he called “Project/Object”, which he described as:

“… a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no ‘technical name.’ Think of the connecting material in the Project/Object this way: a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel. Or: Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other color — he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look.

I am not obsessed by various words, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, and videos for no other reason than to unify the ‘collection’“.

So, to help guide you through Zappa’a voluminous archive, I have chosen some of the more notable songs or moments from Zappa’s music between the years 1967 – 1991 as an introductory guide to the sound of Frank Zappa.


 This interlude, taken from a live recording in London on Zappa’s 1979 tour, is an incendiary example of Zappa’s ability to write or improvise high power rock music. Driven by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta’s frenetic drumming, the song features a melody written in an overall repeating pattern of 5 eighth notes followed by 5 quarter notes: 5/8, 5/8, 5/4, an aspect of the song that intensifies its hypnotic, vertigo inducing effect. ‘Five-five-FIVE” is actually not even a “song” but an instrumental segue over which Zappa solos, as exemplified by this and other segues collected on the album Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and others.

Big Swifty

This (1972) instrumental piece reoccurs across several albums, both in studio and live, in many forms, beginning with the album Waka/Jawaka. As such, tracking its many structural changes gives one a good idea of how Zappa liked to re-arrange and re-structure his own material via the Project/Object concept. As Zappa was recovering from a stage fall (due to an onstage assault) at that period, and could hardly play guitar play, let alone tour, his work was an experiment in writing jazz fusion works, which were hugely popular at the time. A more rock-oriented version appears on Zappa’s (posthumous) album Road Tapes (Venue #2), recorded live in Helsinki, Finland between August 23 – 24, 1973. Though more rock n’ roll (especially with Zappa’s solo, starting at 5m:50s), the appearance of percussionist Ruth Underwood playing various mallet instruments gives the music the classic Zappa sound of this period. At this time jazz fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was a member of the band for a brief period, and such his presence too makes this a unique moment in the Zappa chronology.

A particularly nice version also exists on the long “lost” but recently fixed video footage of Zappa’a Roxy & Elsewhere performances, now available as a CD + Blu-ray set, with excellent performances by Underwood (especially her percussion break at the four minute mark), Zappa, and keyboardist George Duke, with layers of horns underneath provided by brother Bruce and Walt Fowler.

The most interesting version though appears on the album Make A Jazz Noise Here, the track from which the album’s title comes. As Zappa has a full horn section at his disposal, the horn writing is dense and often highly complex. This particular version also what you might describe as “devolves” into free-form sound play, which is both artistic and humorous at times (i.e. the sheep noises between 2m:34s and 2m:43s), but may turn the listener off. The sheep noise though does make for a particularly hilarious moment in a version of “Cosmic Debris” from Zappa’s The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life album.

The Deathless Horsie/Watermelon in Easter Hay

Equally as effective emotionally is the instrumental “ballad” “The Deathless Horsie” off of the album Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More. Beginning with an ostinato what sounds like a child’s glockenspiel, this song has a melancholic quality that, when combined with Zappa’s scorching guitar, makes for a very emotionally impacting musical experience. This same effect occurs with the penultimate track (“Watermelon in Easter Hay”) on Zappa’s album Joe’s Garage. A quiet ostinato instrumental with electric guitar overtop, this piece is consider one of Zappa’ best songs, representative of both his ability to compose great melodies and improvise emotionally affective guitar solos. In fact, like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ song “So What” is to jazz fans, “Watermelon In Easter Hay” is to Frank’s fans essentially the de facto Zappa “song of songs”, loved by young and old alike.

Night School

 No doubt Zappa fans will find my inclusion of “Night School” from the Jazz From Hell album quasi-consternating. It is nothing like his more known works and was composed and recorded by Zappa on a Synclavier. Ironically, after decades of virtuostic composing an performing, it was this album that won him a (1988) Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, though Zappa eschewed the ideals and behaviour associated with the pursuit and achievement of such awards. But as a work composed by Zappa, “Night School” demonstrates that he could easily and effectively write commercial, soundtrack worthy songs.

More Trouble Every Day

Originally titled “Trouble Every Day”, performed by Zappa’s original band the Mothers Of Invention in the Sixties, this song transformed from a mid-tempo blues rock song into the horn driven “More Trouble Every Day”, as typified on the early Seventies live recording Roxy & Elsewhere (by Zappa and “the Mothers”). This new, re-arranged version included a duel drum-break by Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson that so impressed singer Phil Collins he hired Thompson to hold the drum chair in Genesis and Phil’s solo projects for most of the following three decades. It has also been ranked the 29th best live album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Even more impressive is the 1988 live version from The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, as its tempo makes drummer Chad Wackerman’s ability to play the Humphreys/Thompson drum fill very impressive. Additionally, bassist Scott Thunes’ performance on this and two other related albums from the 1988 tour (Make A Jazz Noise Here, Broadway The Hard Way) are excellent examples of how a professional accompanist can create and support the overall feel/sound of a group.

Eat That Question

This jazz fusion piece, with a rather rock and rock main theme, is yet another example of Zappa’s jazz fusion work while recovery from an injury (see: “Big Swifty” above) that left him unable to play guitar with his usual proficiency, or tour. Though the original (from the album The Grand Wazoo) is a fine work on its own, it is the 1988 live version from Make A Jazz Noise Here that really brings the power of the song’s melody to the forefront, though this version is only 1m: 55s and is edited as a segue into the melancholy ballad “Black Napkin”.

Muffin Man

Though this piece (from the album Bongo Fury) has a humorous lyrical introduction, the music (beginning at 1m: 24s) is organized around a particularly powerful blues riff, which comes to underscore Zappa’s ensuing solo. This piece in particular also demonstrates Zappa’s usage of satirical or comical words/content while the music itself is of the highest quality in Zappa’ chosen genre at the moment, a fact that is often missed by Zappa’s detractors.

Dog Breath (In The Year of The Plague)

Probably one of the most fascinating compositions Zappa ever created were “Dog Breath (In The Year of The Plague)” with its combined or interwoven rock and classical themes, and the related (instrumental) “Dog Breath Variations”, both from the album Uncle Meat, the (1969) soundtrack to a then unfinished science fiction movie Zappa as working on in the late Sixties. Also notable about this particular album in general is its inclusion of the lead sheet music for two songs, the main theme (“Uncle Meat”) and the main theme to a series of variations known as “King Kong”. As Zappa’s music is notoriously difficult to transcribe without some sort of assistant technology, having these two examples as an overall guide to Zappa’s use of sixteenth note clusters and eighth note triplet groupings is extremely invaluable to both fans and musicians alike, and an excellent insight into how Zappa created the “stop/start” quality of his percussion writing in particular.

 More raucous versions of “Dog Breath” also appear on (a). Road Tapes (Venue #2) with Jean-Luc Ponty and the band playing a shifting time arrangement bridge section before segueing into a mid-tempo version of “Dog Breath Variations”, and (b). the soundtrack from Roxy The Movie, the posthumous released (limited) film footage of the Roxy & Elsewhere shows. It is interesting to hear Ruth Underwood, Ralph Humphrey, and Chester Thompson playing unison phraseology at almost supernatural levels, from memory. This, of course, was common, as Zappa as known for his grueling rehearsals and demand for session players of extraordinary skill to join his groups. If you were a Zappa band member or an alumni from the early 70s onward, you were hands down the best around. 


HAPPY NEW YEAR: 2018 & なる



As you all know, for the past two years I have chosen a new theme or word to summarize the overall essence of what I plan to do in the year to come. First was the (Japanese) word kakan (果敢: かかん): to be bold, determined, and/or resolute. There was much I wanted to create and achieve in 2016, so I became bolder. Then, in 2017, my word/theme became henkō (変更): change, or alteration: assessing what being bold in 2016 achieved, and how I could improve on the results. This of course means understanding failures, correcting mistakes and re-strategizing successful ventures to be even more successful. So this year I have chosen the verb naru (なる), “to become”, as my word/theme of the year. If we change ourselves we then obviously become something else: something better, something worse, but at least there is a becoming.

Becoming can mean so many different things it is a great word for a yearlong theme, as each of us can apply it to a different area of life. This year I myself am going to apply it to personal wellness: a category we in the Western world tend to ignore until we get overstressed, sick, etc. To become this year then will mean to become more present, more mindful, less stressed, and better able to apply the lessons of 2016 and 2017 without getting worn out. This means meditation, a better focus on nutrition, more sleep, and all the usual things one does. But there is also something I picked up long ago from Zen Buddhism that may help both you and I this year: taking a “sense break”: becoming aware of one of the five senses while tuning out the others. It is a simple exercise, but it really does alter (greatly improve) the average day.

For example, there is a Zen activity called kinhin, in which monks will get up and walk around slowly in order to stretch their legs without losing/breaking the meditative state they are in. Kinhin is done in a specific way, at a specific pace, and your vision is really focused at the time. You really feel your breath too as it changes to a slighter rapider pace. The benefits and feeling of kinhin is repeatable in daily life as well. If you are walking down a grocery aisle, do it one-third slower than you usually would and just take in the various products. You will notice your breath slowing, and your body relaxing. Then, while walking deliberately slower, just try and take in what you see and not think about it all. When at home, while cooking or eating, slow down for a moment and concentrate on the flavor of one bite of food, really taste it for a moment without thinking of anything else. These things may seem too simple or pseudo-spiritual to be effective, but if you actually do them more than once or twice, they do actual help calm you down, lower your blood pressure, clear your mind, boost your immune system a tiny bit, and have many other long term body/mind benefits. They are not magic, and you don’t have to have or change your religious beliefs to use them. They are just simple ways to slow down and give your senses a break from the rapid and constant bombardment of everyday life.

So here is to 2018, and naru: to becoming, to a better way of being, and being your best.

Good luck!

An Introduction To Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic Sessions


An Introduction To Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic Sessions

As a proponent of (First Wave) free jazz and former student of Pulitzer Prize winning saxophonist Ornette Coleman, I am always happiest when sharing his music with my friends and students, especially those who are new to free improvisation. And since many of you are not practicing musicians I thought I would introduce to you Ornette’s amazing early work. First, let’s look at what came before Atlantic.

The Beginning of Free Jazz

There is always some controversy as to whom “started” the free jazz style: pianist Cecil Taylor, or Ornette Coleman, the usual suspects in this debate. Though certain artists like Jimmy Guiffre before had played freer forms of jazz than their peers in the past, it was Taylor and Coleman who are consider the most vital progenitor of the music, at least in this debate.

Taylor’s 1956 LP Jazz Advance had free form piano soloing on it, and his 1959 LP Looking Ahead! was also much freer in some ways than Ornette Coleman’s first two LPs: Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman, and Tomorrow Is The Question (recorded for the Contemporary record label). In fact, Taylor’s piano playing on Looking Ahead sounds more akin to the stylistic trends of Second Wave free jazz; the album’s title a seemingly prophetic self-reference to the Sixties. What makes it all even more tangled is that Looking Ahead, Tomorrow Is The Question and The Shape of Jazz To Come were all released in 1959 within a few short months, so naming a “Father” of free jazz is difficult. But what separates the two, and to me resolves the debate, is Coleman’s accessibility.

Both Taylor and Coleman, being a part of the First Wave, utilize a tradition jazz bass and drum rhythm section, playing a walking quarter note style bass line and steady bebop style beat. All in each group are free to do whatever they like… but the bass and drums are consistent and unchanging in their tempo and style. This changes in the Second Wave of free jazz, the stereotypical free jazz of screeching saxophones and pure noise where everyone is playing with no reference to anything. Both Taylor and Coleman maintain this First Wave bass/drum relationship in their groups (quartets).

But the key difference is that Taylor’s quartet during that period contained two chordal instruments in front of their rhythm section: piano and vibraphone, which can play chords. This means a lot of notes can be stacked one on top of another, which creates so much density and/or dissonance at times, it can be hard on the ears. Coleman’s quartet, on the other hand, consisted of two melody instruments: saxophone and trumpet, which can only play two note stacked at a time, which leaves less room for dissonance, unless one chooses to screech (Second Wave). This increased possibility of consonance (nice sounds), combined with Coleman’s penchant for engaging melodies and a joyous feeling, meant that people gravitated to Coleman with significantly greater enthusiasm. 

 The Atlantic Sessions

Between May 22, 1959 and March 27, 1961 Ornette recorded the 50 plus songs that would become part of his (classic) free jazz albums such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, This Is Our Music, and others for Atlantic Records. In the process he not only invented a new sound and genre in jazz but also opened up new directions in modern art, dance, classical music, rock (Frank Zappa, Velvet Underground, The Stooges), and others who came across his music from non-jazz related arts. In fact these ten sessions consisting of four men playing clever melodies and deceptively simple free form improvisation, recorded within the space of just over 96 weeks, made such a huge socio-cultural impact in the arts, it is rather breathtaking. There is no doubt that if you have any music in your collection that is innovative, it can be traced back to an Ornette Coleman album somehow.

So let’s begin at 9:30 pm on Friday, May 22nd at Radio Recorders in Hollywood California. The session was Ornette playing alto saxophone, Don Cherry playing cornet, Charlie Haden playing bass and Billy Higgins playing drums. As a bonus for all you fellow jazz nerds, I will also include the master copy number incase you want to track the original recording down in the Atlantic archives.

This group would go on to become legendary in the jazz world for their wonderful quartet sound, thanks to the combination of their musical personalities. Drummer Billy Higgins for example, had a more laid back, softer approach than other drummers yet still played with rhythmic intensity. Higgins’ penchant for playing a particularly cross-rhythmic style of bebop influenced drumming meant he provided the group roiling waves of drums and cymbals in a wonderful sea of rhythms, often imitated but never truly matched. Bassist Charlie Haden, a former child star at the Grand Ole Opry, had a lush tone and a wonderful bounce to his playing. Trumpeter and/or cornet player Don Cherry played in a probing, weaving sort of manner that complimented Ornette’s cheerful, angular patterns like thread weaving through lace. Put these men tighter and you get a sound and vision for future styles of music like no other.

The other thing that made Ornette ergo this group famous is that they were playing a song with a prewritten melody, but their improvisations were completely free, meaning they could make up any anything they wanted: base their improvisation on the melody, base it on Higgins’ rhythms, Haden’s bass notes, each simultaneously basing one off each other any point in the song after the melody. This was unheard of in mainstream jazz until Ornette came to Atlantic and released The Shape of Jazz To Come. He had released other albums with similar strategies that had not received similar attention, so The Shape of Jazz To Come is the “first” Ornette Coleman album to cement his legacy.

Ornette routinely named his songs after they had been recorded, so what made this first session for Atlantic unusual is that two of the songs that evening were already named before they were recorded. “Chronology” (#3508) was originally called “Step In”, but was changed upon release, as was the upbeat “Nomad”, which became “Congeniality” (#3510). The music recorded at this session was used on the album The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which was released in 1959, save for two tracks: “Just For You” (#3513) which appears on The Art of the Improvisers (1970), and “Monk And The Nun” (#3512), which appears on Twins (1971). This is very important to note, as it reveals a pattern that was and still is common in the music industry: artists having no control over their work. Though Coleman had creative control over The Shape of Jazz To Come, as his fame grew, so too did Atlantic’s desire to profit from his popularity. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with selling more of an artist’s work… but both The Art Of The Improvisers and Twins were complied and released with zero input from Coleman, which is hugely detrimental. This is because song order and textural considerations are vital in abstract forms, and releasing works without an artist’s input kills the flow of the very thing that made it vital in the first place. So the various sessions that produced Twins and The Art Of The Improvisers just so happened to be rather inspired but unused outtakes, including a 17 minute first take of the now classic half hour work “Free Jazz” that was not even supposed to be released ever, in any form.

(Note: the same thing happened with Coleman’s recording To Whom Keeps A Record. Released only in Japan in 1975, without his input, the pieces happened to be arranged so that when read in sequence would say, “music always brings goodness to us all, p.s. unless one has some other motive for its use”!)

My personal favorite from this session is “Chronology”, with its joyous stop-and-start ending. It seems to sit in a wonderful place right between a traditional jazz song and free jazz, with the best elements of both, not too abstract and not too traditional to bore or alienate anyone!


The Secret Genius of South Indian Music.

As I often write about various aspects of South Indian music, I thought I would do a brief post summarizing how the various topics work together as one: “the” secret behind South Indian music (especially drumming) that reveals its particular genius. So what is the secret? The secret is that underlying South Indian music is a beautiful and often complex mathematical relationship between arithmetic, algebra, and geometry: three aspects of math that come together to produce a fascinating world of speech and rhythm. But before we begin we must know a few basics.

The Essential Principles of Rhythm in Karnatak (or Carnatic) music and South Indian dance are called the Dasa Prana, also known as the 10 vital elements of Karnatak music. These include various ways of indicating rhythm, subdivisions, tempo, classification, and the idea of “time” in general. Through these elements South Indians who study singing, dance, drums, and other instruments learn the essential foundation for expressing themselves.

This means that in musical terms, musicians and dancers learn how to utilize mathematics in three distinct ways: (1) arithmatic, expressed in the art of what is known as solkattu, (2) algebra: expressed in the art of what are known as jati, and (3) geometry: expressed in what are known as yati.

(Note: words like talam, jati, and yati are both singular and plural in the Tamil language, so I will being using them as such: “talam are…”, “a talam is…”.)

First, konakkol and solkattu. The art of studying rhythm through clapping and speaking syllables is known as konakkol: a technique used to teach students how to organize and feel rhythm through speech and hand movement in order to get a better sense of how time flows in South Indian music. Solkattu is one half of konakkol, the art of singing/speaking syllables.

hindu mandala

Looking at the Hindu mandala above then, we notice that the flower petals are arranged in a circle. This is an excellent visual metaphor for how beats are visualized in South Indian music,  the solkattu syllables being the petals. So having this image in your head will help you eventually see how the mathematics of solkattu, jati, and yati join together. A cycle of solkattu syllables (taka dimi taka jonu) is known as a talam : rhythmic cycles consisting of three beats or more… three syllables = three beats, four syllables = 4 beats, etc., each beat/syllable placed on an imaginary circle like positions on a clock.





Each of the talam have names to distinguish each from the other. For example, the most commonly studied south indian rhythm, known as Adi Talam is an eight syllable ergo eight beat cycle, spoken or sung as: “TA KA DI MI TA KA JO NU”. Khanda Eka Talam, for example, is a five-syllable (5 beat) talam spoken or sung as “TA DIN GI NA TOM”. These can be expressed at three speeds (slow, medium and fast), three speeds holding to a strict ratio of [1:2:4], each doubling or halving in speed, essentially creating precise multiplications and divisions of a talam. Imagine a car shifting gears that automatically increase to double the speed. For example, an eight or a seven beat cycle becomes:

TA      KA      DI        MI       TA      KA      JO       NU


takadimi takajonu takadimi takajonu

TA      KA      DI        MI       TA      KI        DA


takadimitakida takadimitakida

Having looked at the arithmetic aspect of South Indian drumming (addition and subtraction), we can now look at the second aspect of its genius, its algebraic aspect. Algebra, the study of numbers and mathematical symbols together, plays a particularly fascinating part of Karnatak music many may not be aware of. This is best explained as how groupings of syllables can be assigned to variables like X or Y. These groupings of syllables or beats are known as jati. Therefore a particular jati has a particular number of syllables. For example, “Chatusra” Jati has four syllables, “Tisra” Jati has three, “Misra” Jati has seven, etc. So when we sing an eight beat talam like Adi Talam: TA KA DI MI TAKA JONU, we are singing a talam with two Chatusra jati in it.

To really see the algebra at work, we can look at a fourteen beat cycle called Dhruva Talam. Dhruva is made up of a grouping of 4 beats + 2 beats + 4 beats + 4 more beats, the basis of this talam being the number 4 (Chatusra jati). Expressed as algebra this can be written as X + 2 + X + X. What makes this so interesting is that you can change the jati variable (X) without changing the structure. Thus, you have great creative freedom while also holding to a strict skeletal formula (which is a lot to process in the mind of the drummer). Dhruva Talam, based on Chatusra jati, changes from a fourteen beat cycle… to an eleven beat cycle in Tisra Jati (groupings of three) as the variable: 4 + 2 + 4 + 4 now becomes 3 + 2 + 3 + 3.



Taking this a step further, Dhruva Talam [X + 2 + X + X] can now become a twenty three beat cycle if we use groupings of seven (Misra jati) as the basis for our talam: 7 + 2 + 7 + 7. If we look at other talam, we see this occurring across the board. For example, the talam called Matthya can be expressed as X+Y+X, so Matthya is a ten beat cycle using Chatusra (4 + 2 + 4), an eight beat cycle using Trisra (3 + 2 + 3), a sixteen beat cycle in Misra (7 + 2 + 7) and so on.

The third and possibly most interesting mathematical aspect of South Indian drumming is expressed in the form of geometry, the art of yati, which are the expansion and contraction of both solkattu and jati, simultaneously, which can be mentally visualized as various shapes: a triangle, upside-down triangle, hour glass, diamond, and so on. Yati are the addition and subtraction of both jati and solkattu syllables simultaneously. Expressed on paper, this tales to form of words creates underlying geometric shapes, for example, Gopuccha yati, upside down triangle shape as the Cow Tail yati





The yati known as Damaru, the “Hour Glass Drum” yati, looks like an hourglass, an upside down triangle on to of a regular triangle.









So if we return to the Hindu mandala I showed earlier (below), we can now see an excellent visual metaphor for how solkattu, jati, and yati can be conceptually combined into a unified whole, which gives those of us without extensive experience in Karnatak music an effective way of understanding and appreciating this art form. 

hindu mandala

Thus South Indian musicians create and convey meaning in music through arthimetic, algebraic, and geometric strategies that shape speech, dance, and rhythm in a manner unlike any other in the world. Thus, as essential participants in the art of Karnatak music, these musicians have been preservers of vital intangible cultural properties… an ancient legacy of creative wisdom that has vitalized India, and indeed world heritage, as it has been taught and performed all over the world.


Robert Okaji: (A Slight Return)

Okaji Image

Having reviewed poet Robert Okaji’s latest chapbook From Every Moment A Second a couple of months ago, I have had time to sit with it and reread various poems that either made immediate impact or have grown on me, The Resonance of No being a strange combination of both. I say “strange”, as one does not expect a thing that resonates with them to not continue to do so. But I did not anticipate the depth at which The Resonance of No would reach or continue to reach within. I have wondered why this is. Then I realized that Okaji creates something I have missed all this time… the sound of Okaji.

“That quality we call beauty . . . must always grow from the realities of life.” This statement by Japanese novelist Jun’ichirou Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows evokes a sense of the aesthetic being rooted in lived experience. Having “experienced” we then categorize, judge and assign value to the “reality” our senses provide. It is on this kind of phenomenology that author Salomé Voegelin builds her book Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Critiquing traditional and modern historical musical research (musicology) Voegelin’s believes that traditional musical compositions and contemporary sonic works are investigated through separate and distinct critical languages (and histories), and thus no continuous study of both as a unified field is possible. Having discovered this she then offers a new framework for analysis that can access and investigate works across time and genre, making possible comparative research into a much wider (and more creative) field of study. But in the process of sound creation for example there can arise great discrepancies between what we believe we have heard compared to what we have actually heard. Thus, Voegelin seeks to explore the possibilities of a sound landscape that is “an environment that involves everything that is and that could be” (pp. 13-14).

What is most interesting to me about the book is how Voegelin “converts” sound into text, as exemplified by a quote taken from her blog (entitle “My Room”). She describes how sound enters her room from other rooms, being “invisibly present” in a visual space. These sounds play a part of her constructing meaning and value in her life, like a walk through autumn leaves becomes a “socio-symbolic” relationship for the person, especially if it evokes strong memories of past walks connected to loved ones, sad times, good times, etc. Thus, Voegelin and her apartment/leaf sounds are written in such a manner that is decidedly not the standard academic manner in which such things are done. Thus, in the book Voegelina argues for a more open and flexible academic language to include such writing, what she calls “textual phonography”, writing that produces not a written “recording” of what was strictly heard, but the sound/ideas that happen in the imagination of the listener, a generative interpretation, what the reader imagines or remembers of what Voegelin heard, or what she herself imagines she heard. This idea of textual phonography became particularly relevant to me recently when I visited Vietnam to perform and do some research.

Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám is a Hanoian Confucian Temple that also held the ancient Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. Built by emperor Lý Thánh Tông in 1070 CE, Văn Miếu is a place (or meant to be a place) of serenity and history: its various gardens, courtyards and stele honouring cultural heritage and inspiring Vietnamese to follow the traditions of respecting teachers, scholars, etc. While walking through the various pavilions and courtyards, my goal was to document the temple’s architectural and aesthetic features to complement similar research I have done in East Asia. But this effort was interrupted by loud pop music blaring into the temple complex from an adjacent store located on the northeast side of Văn Miếu Street. The music, with its cheery electronic beat, filled courtyards and gardens: its presence inescapable and embedded within the temple’s spatial and acoustic ecology. Immersion in this unwanted sound created a very real socio-symbolic presence (intrusion), a new social relationship within a physical environment meant to be its opposite: quiet, scholarly and ethical. But the pop music also represents a “new” Vietnam that is modernizing, and its intrusion may be a matter of my own desire to see a culture I do not come from adhere to some kind of imagined Orientalist purity not accepted or valued by Vietnamese themselves. In this case I may be imagining a Vietnam that is contrary to the actual Vietnam. But at least this language includes the sound of my thought as music as the sound of pop music in as much as language can “sound” music.

Having reread Okaji’s work again a few minutes ago I was struck by its own unique textual phonography:

The Resonance of No

Yes, yes, we’ve heard. The dishwasher wastes less
and cleans better. But Kenk­ō believed in the beauty
of leisure, and how better to make nothing
while standing with hands in soapy water, thoughts
skipping from Miles Davis’s languid notes to the spider
ascending to safe shelter under the sill (after I blow
on her to amuse myself), washing my favorite knife
and wondering if I should hone it, not to mention
my skills on the six-string or the potato peeler.
And if I linger at the plates, even the chipped one,
admiring their gleam after hot water rinses away
the soap residue, who could question the quick gulp
of ale or the shuffle of an almost-but-not-quite
dance step-or-stumble while arranging them on the
ribbed rack, back-to-back, in time to Coltrane’s
solo. Then the forgotten food processor’s blade
bites my palm, and I remember that I’ve outgrown
the dark suit, the cut branches still need bundling
and none of the words I’ve conjured and shaped
over decades and miles will extend their comfort
when I stand at my father’s grave this week or next.

Okaji immediately evokes the soundscape with the idea that (1) No is “resonant” and (2) we have heard something before, which coincidentally is how the original sayings attributed to the Buddha Siddartha usually open: thus have I heard. Even using water evokes the inevitable splash of pans and dishes entering the cleansing sink, as the brooding tones of Miles Davis’ trumpet waft through the air. Following this Okaji blows on a spider as he washes a knife (evoking air and water sounds). A banjo, potato peeler, and a chipped dish too all suggests mental soundings, as do gulp (air sound), ale, stumble, and John Coltrane playing his saxophone (a wind instrument; evoking the beginning of Coltrane’s Blue Train for me).

A much more subtle sounding occurs at the end when Okaji acknowledges he will stand at his father’s grave in the immediate future after decades and miles of travel through the world and Life itself. This kind of writing is summed up by the Japanese term furyu. Meaning “wind and water”, the impermanence of things is in part due to the effect of the forces that drive wind and water to shape what they come into contact with, including many erosion patterns that end up being beautiful. Thus, wind and water are creative, as their destruction is not intentionally “destructive”. Rather, in the process of creation, things are uncreated. Thus Okaji says he shapes words, not “creates” words.

The sobering line at the end when Okaji stands at his father’s grave is evocative of the funeral, which films almost inevitably portray as occurring on rainy, windy days to visually sound the emotional resonance of loss. Though I love film, I immediately heard wind and rain sound when I reread this line… and thus realized I had missed Okaji’s textual phonography of the implication of sound, if not sound itself. Okaji’s forte is the word, but I have come to conclude that he is a composer as well, a writer of the hidden melodies of our nature: recordings from the fields of the soul. I may be imagining this power, but then this is the whole point of textual phonography. The Okaji sound is “that which I imagine I hear in Okaji” as he sounds himself. This is yet another aspect of his poetic power, and reveals just how rewarding and vital it is to live with his work rather than merely “read” it. The silent sound of and the sound in Okaji still resonates in Life though it exists in word…it affirms sound, not negates it, it is the resonance of yes.

From Every Moment A Second is now available from Finishing Line Press.

Lu Chi: 文賦 (On Literature).

Ping Fu


As many of my readers are writers themselves, I thought it would be fun to post one of the classic East Asian works on writing dated to sometime during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280), Rhymeprose On Literature, or “On Literature”. Composed by General Lu Chi (261 – 303), it is China’s first systematic treatise on literary criticism. I have edited or abridged many sections for brevity’s sake, but have tried to retain the original translation’s clarity, using as my source material text from The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994, Columbia University Press): pp. 124 – 133.



Every time I study the works of great writers, I flatter myself I know how their minds worked. Our constant worry though is that our ideas may not equal their objects and our style may fall short of their ideas [reference to Confucius: writing cannot express words completely: words cannot express thought completely.]. Now, it is true that I am hewing an axe handle with an axe handle in my hand, the pattern is not far to seek. However the conjuring hand of the artist being what it is, I cannot possibly make my words do the trick. Nevertheless, what I am able to say I have put down here.


Taking his position at the hub of things, [the writer] contemplates the mysteries of the Universe, he roams in the Forest of Literature, and praises the symmetry of great art. Moved, he pushes his books away and takes the writing brush, that he may express himself in letters.


At first he withholds his sight and turns his hearing inward; he is lost in thought, questioning everything. His spirit gallops to the eight ends of the universe, his mind wanders along vast distances. He sips the essence of letters; rinses his mouth with the extract of the six arts [the six classic Confucian texts]. He gathers words never used in one hundred generations; picks rhythms never sung in one thousand years.


He taps at the door of all that is colorful: he chooses from among everything that rings. Now the tiger put on new stripes, to the consternation of other beasts; now the dragon emerges, and terrifies all the birds. He traps heaven and earth in the cage of form; he crushes the myriad objects against the tip of his brush.


There is joy in this vocation; all sages esteem it. Poets struggle with Non-Being to force it to yield Being; we knock upon Silence for an answering Music. We enclose boundless space in a square foot of paper; we pour out a deluge from the inch-space of the heart. A laughing wind will fly and whirl upward; dense clouds will arise from the Forest of Writing Brushes.


Forms vary in a thousand ways; objects are not of one measure. Confronted with bringing something into being or leaving it unsaid, he groans; between the shallow and the deep, he makes his choice resolutely.

Lyric poetry traces emotions daintily; rhyme prose embodies objects brightly. The epitaph balances substance with style, while the dirge is terse and mournful. Disquisition is rarefied and subtle, while discourse is dazzlingly bright and extravagantly bizarre. Differing in form, they all forbid deviation from the straight, having no “twisty thoughts” (depravity).

Multiple Aspects

Ideas should be cleverly brought together… and the mutation of sounds and tones should be like the five colors of embroidery, sustaining each other. If, however, you have missed the chance and reached the sense belatedly, you will be putting the tail at the head. The sequence of dark and yellow being deranged, the whole broidery will look smudged and blurred.


Weight merit or demerit by the milligram; decide rejection or retention by a hairbreadth. If your idea or word has not the correct weight, it has to go, however comely it may look.


It may be that language and thought blend into damascened gauze – fresh, delightful, and exuberantly lush. Glowing like many-colored broidery [while hinting at weltschmerz], like many chords; but assuredly there is nothing novel in my own writing. True, the arrow struck my heart; what a pity, then, that others were struck before me. [Thus] as plagiarism will impair my integrity and damage my probity, I must renounce the piece, however fond I am of it.

Purple Patches

It may be that one ear of the stalk buds [only one line stands out among many]; solitary and exquisite. But shadows cannot be caught; echoes are hard to bind. Standing forlorn, your purple passage juts out conspicuously; it cannot be woven into ordinary music, and your mind, out of step, finds no place for it. When the rock embeds jade, the mountain glows, when the stream is impregnated with pearls, the river becomes alluring. We will weave the market ditty into the classical melody; perhaps we may thus rescue what is beautiful.


Entrusting your diction to an anemic rhythm: living in a desert you have only yourself to talk to. Fitting your words into a frazzled music; gaudy, your language lacks charm… the harsh note of a wind instrument in the courtyard below. Forsaking reason and going for the bizarre: you pursue inanity and the trivial.


I have been paying tribute to laws of words and rules of style. I know well what the world blames, and I am familiar with what the worthies of the past praised. Originality is a thing often overlooked at askance by the fixed eye. Gems and purest jade beads, they say, are (1) as numerous as the dry beans in the fields, and as inexhaustible as the space between heaven and earth; growing co-eternally with heaven and earth themselves. The world abounds with masterpieces, and yet they do not appear in my own hands. Oh how I grieve that the bottle is often empty; how I grieve that Elevating Discourse is hard to continue. It is no wonder I limp along with trivial rhythms, and make indifferent music to complete the song. I fear being a drummer on an earthen jug: mocked by jinglers of jade pendants.


You cannot hinder its coming or stop its going. When the Heavenly Arrow is at its fleetest and sharpest, what confusion is there that cannot be brought to order? When on the other hand, the Six Emotions [original text unclear: possibly like, dislike, pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy] become sluggish and foul, the mood gone but the psyche remaining, you will be as forlorn as a dead stump, as empty as the bed of a dry river. True, the thing lies in me, but it is not in my power to force it out. And so, time and time again, I beat my empty breast and groan, I really do not know the causes of the flowing and the not flowing.

Encomium on Style

The function of style is to serve as a prop for your ideas. It travels over endless miles, removing all obstructions in its way: spanning innumerable years, taking the place of a bridge. Looking down it bequeaths patterns to the future; gazing up it contemplates the examples of the ancients [sun, stars, moon, dragons, mountains…]. It is a match for clouds and rain in yielding sweet moisture: it is like spirits and ghosts in bringing about metamorphoses [comparison to the heavenly principle Ch’ien: the celestial aspect of the cosmos]. It inscribes bronze and marble to make virtue known; it breathes through flutes and strings, and is forever new.