Frank J. Oteri: It was such a joy to see you get recognized as a composer with a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year. It’s a very big deal in the history of the Pulitzer, because never before have they given the prize to a recording rather than a score for a composition.
Ornette Coleman: Now is that right? I ain’t never thought about that myself. I don’t keep up with that stuff. I just keep trying to find better notes. For me, better notes make my day. It’s nice that people appreciate what you do, but I can’t keep up with that. I’m more concerned about finding ideas that I haven’t done yet, which is not too easy, either.
FJO: But the award does beg a question. In your conception, what constitutes a musical composition?
OC: Well I can’t speak for everybody, but for me it’s if I have an idea and it starts awaking some senses about feeling the notes and resolving ideas. It doesn’t come like you just pick up and do it. Sometimes it doesn’t work because music is mechanical. You can’t talk back to music. So for me, composing is a way of keeping up with not repeating. For me, that’s what it does. It makes me aware of how much I’m repeating and what I’m not repeating. What I’m not repeating is better.
FJO: Now would you have an idea in your head before you pick up an instrument or do you pick up an instrument and then the ideas come out?
OC: It happens both ways. And sometimes it happens without an instrument. Sound I don’t think has any parents. You know, sound is just sound. Although in music tempered velocity makes a note sound like it has so many vibrations, I don’t think of sound as being vibration. I think of sound being a way of expressing an emotion, especially coming from another human being, like talking. That’s sound, isn’t it? I hope so.
FJO: You’ve often said music is a language and that somehow music and language will one day be one form of communication.
OC: Well, I don’t want to speak for the world, because I’m just a speck of dust compared to the world. But when you speak of human beings, we all have a head and when we’re naked we all look alike. So for me, I’m more interested in the human concept of life more than the mechanical part. The mechanical part is interesting, but not as interesting as the human part. It’s much better and I think the reason why it’s much better is because, you know, it’s not too easy to be a human being.
FJO: And music is definitely one of humankind’s greatest aspirations.
OC: Yeah, it’s probably one of humankind’s most freedom of release. You cry or laugh, right. Imagine: it can take any form or shape. I mean, sound: I have no idea what it is. Whatever it is, it’s not confined.
FJO: That’s a very interesting statement considering how your career has spanned so many different kinds of music.
OC: Yeah, I guess you could say that, but it’s all about the same notes. And some of those notes are not right and some of them are not wrong.
FJO: What does it mean when a note is not right?
OC: Well, it doesn’t make the composition balance out, or the idea balance out. Sound itself probably doesn’t require you to be perfect. You’re looking for it to balance something that you’re experiencing that has to do with intervals, which is what musicians and people use to make compositions. But it basically ends up just being sound. There’s a big discrepancy between a note and a sound. I mean, we’re talking, right? I can hear notes in your voice.
FJO: Of course, and I hear notes in your voice. Your bringing up the concept of intervals here makes me curious to know more about your approach to intonation, which has always been very free; I’ve always assumed that’s why you avoided having a piano in your group throughout most of your career.
OC: Well, I haven’t really avoided it because I thought it was going to get better or worse. The piano’s not so easy to take around. And usually they’re not really up to speed as far as being in tune and all those things. And then you have to think about who’s going to play the piano and what about if he can’t play the piano. The piano has 88 keys. It only has 12 keys in western music. What happens if you take 12 from 88? I’m trying to figure out how many notes are left without all those notes having anything to do with sound!
FJO: As you say, the piano only has these 12 pitches. But a saxophone or a bass or a violin can play any pitch. You can bend the notes and have as many notes in an octave as you want; you can have all kinds of microtonal intervals. Is this kind of an extension of intonation something that you’re consciously thinking about in performance?
OC: No. I think what you’re suggesting is human language. Imagine how many languages human beings speak, and everybody sings in the shower, whatever that means! Everybody actually likes to hear music by making music. But as far as the technical part of my music goes, it’s still based on the chromatic scale. Jazz music is basically based on the motion and scales of Western music. If you forget the scales, then it’s just basically representing from the human emotions of intelligence becoming sound. Imagine, what is sound? Although sound is one thing, music is another, emotion is another. Feeling is even more complex. But when it’s put all together, you usually end up smiling and feeling better about the results. Not all the time though, but mostly, especially, I imagine, when it comes to writing songs or symphonies and putting music in a form where the male and female both can appreciate it.
FJO: So would you say one of your goals with your music is to make people happy?
OC: I don’t think I can make people happy. I can do something and hope that they are happy, you know. And I don’t think I can make any person anything. I’m not God. No one is God.
FJO: So what do you want a listener to feel when hearing your music?
OC: To tell you the truth, I don’t know enough about that person to answer that. I don’t really think about that. I’ve had people say, “I think you should play more like this or that.” And I’ve said, “O.K., I’ll try it.” But I don’t really have any judgments about the brain and the heart. It doesn’t belong to me to judge.
FJO: Getting back to your compositional process, either it’ll first come in your mind or it’ll come on an instrument. But then the next step is sharing it with other musicians with whom you’ll play this music. You’ve worked with many different types of musicians over the years: jazz musicians, classical musicians, rock musicians. They each have different ways of receiving and processing information about music.
OC: And different feelings, that’s true. But they’re still using the same notes. I mean, in Western culture, from C to B is a half step, that’s 12 half notes. And everybody that reads or plays an instrument uses those notes to express what they can do with music.
FJO: So, do you have written charts for the players to read from?
OC: Yeah, usually. I wrote a symphony called Skies of America once and I wrote it out note for note for everybody, and it turned out pretty good. I don’t play it very much because it uses over 30 people. And that’s not so easy, to get [all those] people when you want them. So I haven’t performed it very much. But sometime I might get an opportunity to do it.
FJO: I heard you do it at Lincoln Center live, and I know the LP with the London Symphony Orchestra from the early ’70s. But you’ve also written several string quartets and a work with a wind quintet.
OC: Yeah, this is true. I think about playing music in any combination that sounds different than what I’ve done. That idea for me is the most advanced way to equate what we call intelligence or life and love. You have to use your heart and head to express it.
FJO: Is there a kind of music in the world that you would not be interested in doing?
OC: I haven’t heard it yet. You say “kind of music.” To me, music is an idea and everybody has an idea, including your kids. Everybody can come up and ask you about something that you don’t even know. And you don’t even know why they know, or why they’re asking what it is. The human element in living is free. And anyone that is trying to live as a human being has to find something to do besides complaining. Complaining, you don’t get too much done.