I didn’t always know where I was, so I went to a library and I checked out all the books possible and imaginable on the human brain, I read them all. They said that the brain was only a conversation. They didn’t say what about, but this made me understand that the fact of thinking and knowing doesn’t only depend on the place of origin. (Ornette Coleman, “The Others’ Language”)
On October 26, George Blake led us in a discussion of an interview between Jacques Derrida and free jazz artist Ornette Coleman, and their joint performance onstage in July 1997. In “The Others’ Language,” Derrida interviewed Coleman about improvisation (including the place of repetition and groups in improv); and “Play–The First Name” comprises the text of Derrida’s “solo” performance following Coleman’s concert with pianist Joachim Kuhn. Julie Carlson aptly summarized the dynamic between Derrida and Coleman as one not characterized by confrontation of experts viewing a topic through different lenses, but rather characterized by a “tonal” respect of the other that eschews direct agreement or disagreement; thus, the deflections of questions that some of us noticed were not outright rejections of each other’s ideas and work, but rather indicate an improvisatory mode of conversation that reaches across disciplinary divides.
After working through definitions of bebop, harmolodic music, and free jazz, listening to excerpts of the “free jazz” composed and performed by Coleman, and discussing receptions of Derrida’s speech vs. that of his written work (as the audience jeered his recitation of “Play”), we noted some questions and themes that recurred from our previous explorations of improvisation:
- The importance of balancing play and the “new” with codes and repetition (particularly germane, in this conversation, to deconstruction and its work with language systems);
- The difficulty of knowing when you have mastered a framework enough to improvise after it;
- The idea of “mastery” that is equally prevalent in musical performance and in academia, compared to the immersive, embodied, unconscious relationship we may have with a craft or field after working with it for years;
- The role that the body, the environment, and objects can play in improvisation (as when the sound of audible breathing in a clarinet links the performer’s body and the instrument);
- The importance of improvisation in groups for social survival and thriving, and the risks of improvising with others (as when Derrida indicates his shame at invoking the words of Coleman’s mother when he does not know her name);
- The use, place, and risks of deferment, and (similarly) of absence–if we cannot do everything, how can we stop apologizing for what we don’t do?