Steve Coleman - "Philosophy and Balance"
"Balance" is what plays the most important role in Steve Coleman´s life - both in private and in his work. Balance is to be understood as a universal system, as an aspect of his approach to music and life, that involves the forces of the universe, personal qualities, and the depth of being.
One of your music theory interest is "Symmetrical Musical Structures". How much does music have to do with mathematics? What is your special interest in symmetry in this context? Any connection to Hofstadter´s "Gödel, Escher, Bach"?
Music and numbers are connected. Many people do not realize that our musical system is already very mathematical, it does not need me to add anything to it. There is also already a lot of symmetry in all systems of music. My own interest in symmetry started when I was very young and continued when I began to learn about musical structure and improvisation. I began by studying the music of Charlie Parker, which has a lot of high level form and symmetry.
From there I moved on to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bela Bartok, African and Cuban folkloric music, Von Freeman, Stravinsky, Bunky Green, George Lewis, counterpoint, Muhal Richard Abrams, etc., all of this stuff has high level symmetry in it. I have the book Gödel, Escher, Bach, I bought it because I am interested in Bach and Escher, but I haven´t had time yet to read it completely. I¹m studying a lot of ideas and principles worked out by many ancient civilizations a long time ago (e.g. Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Harrapan, Chinese etc) and I´ve noticed that there is always some high level symmetry involved.
You developed a computer program "The Improviser" - please tell a little bit more about it. What about your software ideas in 1998 - the "Rameses" Computer Program and how did the work with the IRCAM take place?
The Improviser is an early version of Rameses. The project was to take the form of a Kametic Opera, that is a work based on the principles of ancient Egyptian science, mythology, astronomy, cosmogony and art. Balance is at the heart of this information and approach. The elements of the piece involve mostly music but with room to later add dance, phonetics, art and film all interacting with computers to express, through the use of sonic and visual symbols, multiform conceptions of the creation principle. This work involved specially developed symbolic notation for the musicians, notation for dancers, notation for the computer programmers and computer code for the computers.
Rhythm is at the heart of this work. Although a substantial amount of the computer interactive element is derived from tonal, color, speech and spatial information, it is the spatial relationships and motion of the various elements that is the driving force. The computer acts as a conceptual pivot, serving as an organizational center that spirals at the center of the work. Information was organized and provided in advance of the performance by myself and this data formed the basis of the computer software that will be created.
In the beginning Maceo Parker and Charlie Parker, then West African music, Indian music - how is it possible to positively combine all these influences? The ideas behind these different musical concepts - which you studied for a long time - how much influence did and do they have on your music, on your whole life?
Maceo Parker is not a really big influence on my music, this is more talked about by music writers and critics. I just liked his playing when I was younger. James Brown is more of a bigger influence. Charlie Parker and West African music are huge influences on my music and my live. I do not see these as different musical concepts. I tend to look at what connects things, not what makes them different. So I would say that my way of thinking is correlative in this sense, I correlate all of the common elements that I see around me, in music and in the Universe. This is the way that I process the information.
So I see many, many different connections between Parker`s music and the universe, my everyday life, philosophy, etc. I cannot say how or what in one sentence or in one interview because it is many small things. However I can say that one of the main principles at work in all that I am dealing with is "balance and form". There are really only two kinds of music, good and bad and this is relative to the listener. I listen to all the music that I think is good and that I can learn from, I don`t care what it is called by the music industry. The music I am attracted to the most is that music which brings to my mind the images and processes of Nature (e.g. the Universe).
Your 1996 "Community Residency Project" - do you see it as a success and: was there ever a second project like it? Are you planning one?
It was successful because it happened, we did what we wanted to do and many people got a lot out of it. We worked a lot in the poorer communities out in the Bay area. I don`t think of success in terms of finance (I know you did not ask this also). We did this same kind of residency in 1994, 1995 and 1996 in the Bay area. There were many projects that we have done in a similar direction as this in India, Senegal, Cuba, Europe, Eastern and Western United States etc. I`m not in the process of planning one at this moment but I would like to do something in Brazil in the future.
M-Base: Its foundation is African music, with a strong emphasis in the areas of spiritual, rhythmic and melodic development - that makes it a basically non-western conception. For which people is M-Base open? What about musicians living strictly in the "western world" - is it possible for them to join in? Has the meaning of M-Base changed in the recent years?
M-Base is more of a philosophy than an organization. There are some business entities that exist with the name "M-Base" but the M-Base you are talking about is a way of thinking, and it is not new just of this time; today. As far as I`m concerned I got this idea from what people were doing in the past and older musicians also. This way of thinking is open to anyone since it is not a club that you can join. Of course ideas change and grow as people grow but I think that what is happening now is an extension of what went down before. M-Base really just involves different approaches to how to develop music from your living experiences.
You once said - and I agree - that "what a person hears is largely shaped by his/her own experience". What would you say is the consequence of this for making music and the striving of the musician for interaction with the listener?
The consequence, if one is a musician, is that this has a very large effect on the direction of the music that a musician creates and what the purpose of that music is. Also you cannot escape who and what you are, but most people do not even deal with that, they are only concerned with what they think (confusing this with who/what they are) and what others think about them. However who/what you are will come through in the music if you are a musician. Even so the musician needs to constantly re-evaluate his/her relationship to the people and how to better get the message across. This is not an easy task in this entertainment driven music industry that we have today.
This time, your liner notes are not about philosophical concepts - why? How much understanding of the background is necessary or desirable for listeners of your music?
I do different things depending on how I feel. Sometimes note, sometimes no notes. People are not going to "understand" the music really, they will feel and think different things and this is based in large part on who they are, as I said before. Many people appreciate the extensive liner notes because they like to have some idea of how the musicians think about this music. I get many email messages from people thanking me for writing liner notes like this. But some people don`t like this and prefer just to hear the music. It is easy for these people to simply not read the notes, but sometimes they get upset and ask me why am I writing these complicated notes. I try to help people to come towards the music, because I believe that with sophisticated music it is necessary for both the musician and the listener to work towards understanding.
Steve Coleman´s website: www.m-base.com
CD: Steve Coleman - "Resistance is futile"
(Label Bleu / Sunny Moon 6643/44)
Fotos: Label Bleu / M-Base