Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic Theory: Between Metaphysics and Musicking

Saturday, Feb 25, 2023

13:15 p.m. - 17:30 p.m.

In this paper, I want to discuss the role of metaphysics in Ornette Coleman’s music and music philosophy. Coleman is not only one of the most important musicians in the history of jazz and the avant-garde traditions in the 20th century but can also be regarded as “a conceptualist and theorist” (Lock, 1988, 17); most famously, as the founder of the so-called harmolodic theory. Coleman has variously understood harmolodics as a theory in which harmony, melody, movement, rhythm and metre are regarded not hierarchically but fundamentally equal. By creating a music theoretical system that attempts to reorganise fundamental musical parameters in a non-hierarchical manner, Coleman shows the limits of “Western musical theory and practice” and makes apparent the ideological “manifestations of the West’s exclusionary rationalist ethic” (Mackey, 1978, S. 375). Harmolodics is Coleman’s endeavour to find a new compositional and improvisational system, a new so called “sound grammar” (Myers, 2022), one that promotes different notions of musical ideas, play, composition and improvisation. Ultimately, harmolodics is Coleman’s ideal of creating an egalitarian musical situation “without [anyone] trying to dominate it or lead it” (Derrida & Coleman, 2004, 322).

With this paper, I want to unpack the implications of Coleman’s harmolodic theory with regards to its metaphysical claims. Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is fascinating because it can be understood as a musical theory that is founded on a wider cosmological and political philosophy. Music, metaphysics and politics seem intimately entangled in Coleman’s vision. Harmolodics not only attempts to organise musical sounds in an equal manner but simultaneously includes its participating musicians and listeners into the ideals of egalitarian reorganisation. Furthermore, harmolodics refers also to the spiritual or metaphysical, similarly in musical terms, such as harmony or unison. Harmolodics then, for Coleman, becomes a grand theory “where all ideas – all relationships and harmony – are equally in unison” (Coleman, in Hamilton, 2005, 24). This paper will be a first impression of a more in-depth research project that focusses on the specific entanglement of formal theory, politics and metaphysics in Coleman’s music and thought.

Malte Kobel

Malte Kobel has recently been awarded a PhD in Music at Kingston University (London). His dissertation with the title “The musicking voice: performance, affect and listening” develops a theory of the voice as a musicking entity and offers a musico-epistemological problem to philosophies of voice and music. Prior to Kingston, Malte has studied musicology at the University of Vienna and Humboldt University of Berlin. His work has been published in the Journal for Cultural Research and Sound Studies. Apart from academic work he teaches, co-runs the record label Hyperdelia, curates radio programmes and is initiator of the collective BLATT 3000.