A Somewhat Nerdy But Still Hopefully Useful Post

Armen also asked a follow-up to the DownBeat interview. Here’s his question and my response.

Your interview with Steve Coleman was very interesting. When you spoke of the M-Base language and its use, that really put many thoughts into my head. In fact what material could you recommend on further investigation of 12-tone music? I understand the basics, but in terms of improvising and improvising in relation to the composition intrigue me and make me want to investigate it.

I looked at 12-tone system with procedures similar to what we use in chord playing. Deriving lines from voicings, learning permutations, creating new triadic and tetradic relations, deriving forms from non-key-related structures. Very basically — it is a way to create new kinds of material one wouldn’t come across any other way. The challenge to myself was to come up with a unique improvising language. I admired the way Steve Coleman and Greg Osby had had done it and I was looking for another path.

In my practice I also worked on integrating the non-key-specific lines into key-specific situations. For example, what happens when you are playing in the key of F and you have a twelve tone line that sounds like it starts in F, but then (unavoidably, by its nature) wanders away from F, and inevitably wanders back? And what if you played it backwards or inverted the intervals?

I was actually shocked to find how seamlessly those kinds of things could work. Sometimes I think a highly chromatic player like Joe Henderson really wasn’t all that far from that anyway.

One thing I didn’t do was ask the players in the group to “improvise twelve tone style.” I think improvisation is about freedom in context so I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to play, I would only create the context in which it could happen.

Too much theory can be deadening. But in my own playing I found the theory useful as a launching pad for escaping the hegemony of the tonic.

If you are looking for a great resource on this you can’t do better than Charles Wuorinen’s ‘Simple Composition.’