Ornette Confronts “Technology”

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Tony Smith

Song X
Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Pat Metheny, guitar; Charlie Haden, bass; Denardo Coleman and Jack De Johnette, precussion
Geffen 24096.

TWO JAZZ MUSICIANS, guitarist Pat Metheny and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, recently released an album entitled Song X. Jazz musicians, of course, regularly play together in ephemeral and ever-shifting combinations. At first it may seem that the only thing different about this specific collaboration is the exceptionally high quality of the music that resulted. And from a perspective internal to jazz that is indeed all that matters. But from a historical materialist perspective we should also consider how this music reflects contemporary social processes.

Culture is relatively autonomous from the material basis of society, in that cultural developments can never be reduced to socio-economic processes. They have their own internal dynamic. But this cultural dynamic never unfolds in a social vacuum. Whether or not they are aware of it, cultural workers in capitalism are ex­ posed to the same uneven rhythms of economic development, the same ideological currents, the same struggles inside and outside of institutions, as the rest of us.

And even “apolitical” artists engaged in “art for art’s sake” will reflect this.

My thesis is that Song X is tied together with the class dynamic of the technocracy in a very interesting fashion. For our purposes here we can loosely define “technocracy” as the group that includes engineers, computer scientists, statisticians, middle-level managers, technical writers, scientific researchers working in corporate labs, etc.

From an abstract point of view members of this group occupy a class location midway between capital and labor. They lack control over investment decisions and must sell their labor power to those who have such control; in this they are like other wage laborers. But they have also had a control over the exercise of their own labor power and at least a partial control over the labor of others that makes them more like those who control capital.

Despite the fact that structurally the technocracy falls between capital and labor, the technocracy in practice has consistently stood with capital against labor. This can be seen clearly in their efforts to develop technologies that shift more and more control over more and more aspects of the production process from the shop floor to the manager and engineer’s office; that allow production to be shifted with ease to where labor costs are the lowest and labor organization the weakest; that allow an ever-increasing monitoring of the work force.

Now one hardly needs to be a scholar in historical materialism to understand that conditions at work will affect the sorts of music one enjoys off the job. There is surely a connection, for example, between speeded-up assembly line jobs requiring a great expenditure of nervous energy and heavy metal rock.

On these jobs, if the worker’s level of nervous energy slips even for a moment from what the machine demands, serious injury will result. For many young (especially white) workers, heavy metal both captures this nervous excitement in musical structure and offers a sublimated and ritualized forum to play out a rebellion against their daily prison.

There is just as surely a connection between the fact that members of the technocracy typically do not enjoy heavy metal rock and their quite different workplace experience. As agents of capital, music of rebellion, however sublimated and ritualized, is not for them. Instead they share with the ruling class the psychological need to regard the status quo as basically legitimate, to see society as basically harmonious and to see their own work as contributing to that harmony. To speak of a connection of work experience or class position with musical expression does not, of course, mean an identity. There are numerous factors, or “mediations,” that affect the relationship–generational, educational, racial, gender, etc.

In the case of the technocracy, for exmple, its members tend to be too young to relate to Lawrence Welk or “easy listening,” well enough educated to demand something more sophisticated than the more vapid forms of rock, and by and large white, so that they are somewhat unlikely to be drawn to the Black-dominated core of creative jazz music. There are of course also individual exceptions to all these generalizations.

What we can say, generally speaking, is that the class position of both the technocracy and the ruling class has found its expression in music that has filtered out any hint of social conflict except that of the most personal sort. Catchy melodies and familiar harmonies create a harmonious musical world, corresponding to the harmonious social world whose existence their material position in society leads them to assume.

To this we must add one further specific feature. The technocracy, aware that the bourgeoisie and not itself ultimately has power, is faced with the problem of maintaining its self-esteem. Typically, the technocracy claims for itself a vitality, an imagination, a willingness to experiment, and–dare I say it?-a “hipness” that their bosses lack.

Thus a music appropriate to the class position of the technocracy must have some more or less exotic feature, whether it is the residue of the blues that can still be heard on the saxophone of a David Sanborn, the Third World borrowings of a Lucia Hwang, or the excessive romanticism of a George Winston. Anyone who has spent any time in businesses that cater to Yuppies (a. name for the technocracy when they leave the production process and enter the realm of consumption) will be familiar with this sort of music.

In my opinion the most representative musician of those who rely predominantly on the technocracy for their audience has been Pat Metheny, an electric guitarist. Metheny has a natural love for technology unsurpassed by any other musician. His music typically has captured a gentle melodicism with exotic tonal colors provided electronically. Many of the sounds themselves have never been made in the history of music, yet the musical form they take is familiar and reassuring.

This is a perfect expression in music of the technocratic world view of technical advances occurring within harmonious and stable social forms. Recently Metheny has purchased a Synclavier digital music system with a built-in 32-track digital memory recorder and 512 present timbres, and has toured the country conducting Synclavier seminars for the New England Digital Corporation on this state-of-the-art musical technology. Revolutionary in the technology he employs while conservative in the use to which this technology is put, Metheny captures the complexity of the technocracy’s social role.

Technology in Crisis

The technocracy cannot shelter itself from social contradictions forever. There are signs that its days of being able to remain blind to the realities of class struggle are fast ending. The socio-economic realm is one in which social contradictions unfold in a dynamic process, in which the cultural realm participates–which will bring us back to the music of Pat Metheny after a brief detour.

Three fairly recent developments can be mentioned. First, it used to be thought that high tech industries were recession-proof, and that they were about to inaugurate a period of uninterrupted prosperity. The severe (and not yet over) slump in the computer industry caught many unaware, and profoundly shook the rather naive optimism of many members of the technocracy.

Second, it is the technocracy’s misfortune to be living through the greatest period of consolidation in economic history. When giant firms are merged, many of the functions performed by technocrats are duplicated by other technocrats, making their continued employment extremely precarious. For example, after General Electric bought out RCA, the head of GE announced that he planned to run the merged mega-company with no more staff than had run GE alone. Third, and most ironically, the technocracy is being undermined by developments in technology. Technology has always been used as a weapon by capital and its allies in the technocracy against the working classes. Now technology is beginning to be used as a weapon against the technocracy itself.

Many members of the technocracy are collectors of information, which they then analyze, interpret, and pass on to top executives. When top managers recognize that much of this information can be obtained faster, less expensively, and more thoroughly by computers, they begin to view many members of the technocracy as expendable. Over one-third of the 100 largest U.S. industrial companies have begun to eliminate middle-level managers, and the number is growing.

Similarly, developments in computer­ aided design and manufacture are eliminating many engineering positions, as one engineer at a computer work station can do the job it took two or more to do before. Companies like Chrysler have been able to cut their engineering staff by half without sacrificing any product development programs. The development of expert systems, a form of artificial intelligence that carries out reasoning processes previously monopolized by skilled professionals, has also begun to take its toll.

The result of these and parallel developments is a long-term trend for a shift in the occupational structure from a pyramid with a relatively extensive middle stratum to an hourglass structure with many at the bottom, a few at the top, and not many at all in the middle.

A Radical Potential?

How will the technocracy respond to this shift in class position? At first most can be expected to internalize the blame and think in terms of a personal failure. Higher rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, wife and child abuse, and so on, can be predicted. But it is also possible that members of the technocracy will realize that there is a social dynamic at work.

This may take a reactionary form. For instance racist feelings may spread towards the Japanese, or male members of the technocracy may blame their lack of employment opportunities on increased participation of women in the workforce. If this occurs the class alliance between capital and the technocracy may be maintained.

But this is by no means inevitable. Members of the technocracy may realize in growing numbers that their interests and the interests of capital do not coincide. More and more technocrats may even come to recognize that their interests are fundamentally antagonistic to the interests of capital. Business Week has already begun to warn the business community of the dangers it faces if this group becomes radicalized when its expectations are crushed.

If and when this occurs the technocracy will find itself thrust into struggles against capital. If events unfold in this direction the technocracy will soon discover that winning such struggles requires more than merely technical expertise. It will then have to tum to other radicalized groups, to the militant sections of the working class, feminist, anti-racist, and environmentalist movements.

Its technical expertise can offer quite a lot in any struggle against capital. But the technocracy as a whole has been apolitical and oblivious to social movements for quite some time, and so at least at first it will find itself in a learning position in such an alliance.

All of this, believe it or not, brings us back to Pat Metheny. Just as the technically adventurous yet conservative melodicism of Metheny’s past work captures in musical shape the technocracy’s first long period of alliance with the bourgeoisie, his more recent work has begun to reflect the disintegration of the technocracy’s belief in a stable and harmonious social world.

The title cut from his 1982 album Off-ramp dissolves any hint of a harmonious musical world in a controlled chaos of sounds. “The Calling” from his 1984 Rejoicing album furthers his exploration of music meant to disturb rather than to soothe. In contrast to the vapid preciousness of many of his earlier recordings, Metheny here creates music for a world in which social conflicts exist.

From a sociological standpoint (and, by happy coincidence, from a purely musical standpoint as well) most significant of all is this year’s collaboration with Omette Coleman in Song X, a collaboration prefigured in the 80/81 album Metheny recorded with ex-members of Omette’s band.

A Black Musical Visionary

Coleman’s music has always embodied struggles for emancipation. From his earliest albums in the late ’50s he has explored pitch and timbre at variance with accepted notions both within and outside jazz. His rejection of music based on preselected chords, rhythm, and song forms created “free jazz,” the musical style that best captured the Black liberation movement’s struggle against ossified social structures.

In place of rigid musical structures Coleman has developed a system of collective improvisation termed “harmolodics.” While an adequate technical understanding of harmolodics has to wait until Coleman publishes his long awaited text on the topic, harmolodics is a style in which the traditional distinction between lead player in the foreground and accompanists in the background breaks down.

Each musician may play in a different key (or no key at all), a different rhythm, a different melody, and yet the piece coheres as a whole. At its best harmolodics offers a framework within which the social dialectic between community and individual can be played out in musical form.

Song X is listed under Metheny’s name. Nonetheless it is clearly an Omette Coleman album. His longtime partner Charlie Haden is the bassist, and his son Ornette Denardo Coleman appears as percussionist, along with the powerful Jack De Johnette. Metheny, despite his unsurpassed mastery of new musical technologies, is here in the role of the pupil as Ornette challenges him to use this technology in an exploration of new musical worlds.

When they improvise contrasting lines of music, the difference between the two is usually manifest. Ornette’s lines are fluid. Their lengths depend on the human emotion being expressed rather than on rigid bar lines separating one measure from another. If he makes a moaning scream that descends over two measures and spills over into a third, then so be it if the phrase is true to human experience.

The shape of Ornette’s lines is ever varied as well. Given any three notes, the fourth will unfold from what went before, but there is no mechanical formula from which it could be predicted.

In contrast Metheny’s playing is too often mechanical in this sense. Too often he seems merely to be playing scales rapidly. The technical skill this requires is impressive, but it makes his selection of notes somewhat predictable. And one gets the feeling that the length of his musical phrases is determined more by how long it takes to complete some technical exercise than by how long it takes to adequately capture some emotion in musical form.

In other selections, for instance on much of “Mob Job,” Metheny shadows Coleman, as the two play the same phrases in unison. Here we can hear Metheny struggling to stretch his rhythmic sense, his choices of notes, and the length of his phrases so as to match the flexibility of Ornette’s playing.

“Kathelin Gray” is based on melancholy themes. It is the closest to the typical Metheny melodicism. Yet it has a bitter edge that avoids the vacuousness to which Metheny has been known to fall prey.

If this song had appeared on an earlier Metheny album it most probably would have taken a musical form picturing a world of romantic harmony with all discord filtered out. Here, the world pictured is one in which even haunting beauty is no guarantee that the distance that separates people can be overcome (a point reinforced by the abrupt and unresolved ending).

Symbolic Partnership

Two selections deserve special comment. On both “Endangered Species” and “Song X Duo” Metheny most successfully assimilates the breakthroughs Coleman has made.

The former cut begins with high screams in unison and then takes off in an incredibly fast tempo. The music captures a heightened fighting spirit, a militancy that a species threatened with destruction needs to direct against its enemies if it is to survive. This music could never serve as a background to the purchase of commodities at some boutique. Passages like quick jabs, sudden assaults, alternate with others that are more like continuous blows delivered fluidly.

Throughout, the attack is relentless. Then, after the initial offensive, Omette settles in for an extended campaign, pacing himself for the duration of the conflict. Up until this point Metheny has been with Coleman step for step, playing with a passion that matches Coleman’s own. Now, however, he begins to punctuate Ornette’s phrases with more and more insistency, pushing Omette back to the attack.

At that moment, when Metheny raises the intensity level, it is no longer a teacher/pupil relationship. We hear instead two equals engaged in a common battle. This is the feeling I get from “Song X Duo” as well, which contains some of Metheny’s best playing on the album.

On one level, for Metheny to turn to Coleman signifies nothing more than a young musician being honest enough with himself to recognize that despite his great popularity he still has much to learn. But Metheny’s evolution, from the soothing and too often saccharine melodies of his earlier albums to the jagged contours and vicious tempos of Coleman’s music, may have more than a merely personal significance.

If the above analysis of the class position of the technocracy is correct, it will be harder and harder for this group to maintain its naive ideology of social harmony. When that point is reached the best of the technocracy may seek out alternative conceptions of the world, conceptions that lead to struggle against–rather than acquiescence to-accepted social structures. If and when this occurs the journey will be along the same path that led Pat Metheny to the music of Ornette Coleman, a path that does not end with Song X.

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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