The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.
A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.
Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.
This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).
“The first time I heard Coltrane the cut was A love supreme, and that’s an extremely simple three-note bass line that repeats without variance throughout the duration of a very long piece.”
“I was a novice unfamiliar with that sort of jazz, and I heard him run through the gamut of emotions on his horn, from tender to angry to bluesy to just…insane, to where it actually sounded offensive to me—until later.”
“I liked the way he was dancing over, above, under, within, and without this rock solid motif that didn’t change, and that three-note motif established a trance world where he could do all those things. It seemed timely, spiritual, and earthy all at the same time.”
“What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn I tried to do physically.”
Quoted in “Iggy Pop” by Kristine McKenna, in Talk to her: Interviews (Seattle, Fantagraphics, 2004, pp. 174–82).
Today is Iggy Pop’s 70th birthday! Below, live in 1977.
Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns (1947) is a highly systematic compendium of templates for composition and improvisation.
In an interview, Slonimsky stated that “the scales are compositions and they also provide materials for more extended compositions…I wrote several works in those scales.”
“Everybody warned me that only dyed-in-the-wool academics would touch the Thesaurus, but what actually happened was that academics did not care at all for it. So who picked it up? Jazz players!”
“I have interviewed McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s pianist for a number of years, and he directly confirmed Coltrane’s use of the book. [According to Tyner,] Coltrane carried the book with him constantly during the years 1957 to ’59…He always took it with him when he travelled on concert tours, and…practiced it as part of his daily routine.”
Quoted in “Conversation with Nicolas Slonimsky about his composing” by Richard Kostelanetz (The musical quarterly LXXIV/3  pp. 458–72).
Today is Slonimsky’s 120th birthday! Below, selections from the Thesaurus played on electric guitar; a full open-source publication of the work is here.
BONUS: Coltrane’s Giant steps and Countdown, both of which are thought to have been influenced by Slonimsky’s Thesaurus.
We cannot understand the nature of music and its role in human life by conceiving of it as a thing; we must see it as an event in a context, replacing the noun music with the verb musicking.
The nature of musicking may then be addressed by asking whose ideal relationships are being celebrated, what the nature of those relationships is, and how they are represented in the performance.
This according to “Musicking: A ritual in social space” by Christopher Small, an essay included in Aflame with music: 100 years of music at the University of Melbourne (Melbourne: Centre for Studies in Australian Music, 1996 pp. 521–533).
Below, an example of musicking that involves minimal precomposition.
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