Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Aural Archetypes and Cyclic Perspectives in the Work of John Coltrane and Ancient Chinese Music Theory

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Aural Archetypes and Cyclic Perspectives in the Work of John Coltrane and Ancient Chinese Music Theory

Article excerpt

The shaman is, then, a cosmically instructed man. His initiation is appropriate to the outer forms of his existence, yet bears an archetypal stamp.

--Stephen Larsen (1988, 81)

The following work, by relating musical constructs with cross-cultural concepts, proposes essential parallels between John Coltrane's enigmatic diagram of 1960 (see Lateef 1981, inside cover; Schott 2000, 355-356) and several ancient cyclic music theories of China. Consequently, with a reconsideration of commonly accepted analytical approaches to Coltrane's later musical periods, a new perspective offers a more artistically relevant view toward his developing musical conceptions of the 1960s as well as a more integrated understanding of modal practices in general.

Historically, the inclusivity of jazz tradition has inspired many musicians to introduce a variety of world influences into a predominantly African-American musical heritage. Beyond general concepts of pentatonicism, though, specific Chinese references to historical jazz practices have thus far remained untapped. Scholarly significance in this area must move both analytical and performance worlds forward, primarily because of the manifold potential in applying ancient Chinese theories toward the analysis of a twentieth-century musical culture like jazz.

Indeed, from two seemingly far-removed worlds, tangible new relationships are generated for Chinese traditional and American jazz music scholars alike in ways such as the following.

* Ancient esoteric Chinese concepts applied practically by the jazz performer will affect cognitive interaction both socially with the listener and personally with the historical tradition at hand.

* Theoretical insights, when compatible between two or more removed cultural-historical contexts, raise important potential for creating larger, more unifying musical theories--not necessarily of any particular practice in itself but rather for more cultural practices in general--in all, furthering our understanding of human commonalities through music.

* Considering the possibility that similar resources could give rise to the conception of similar approaches between modulatory traditions, then from and beyond the singular jazz model presented here, speculation could be returned toward how ancient Chinese and other musical practices may relate to the surviving theoretical documents of their time. This comparative work hones theoretical aligning of those tonal processes that together reveal more than common pentatonic perceptions have thus far allowed. For example, in regard to a recently discovered Chinese bell-set from the fifth century B.C., Liang (1985, 74-75) points out that: "The evidence for a modulation practice is especially compelling when one considers, for example, the purpose of having almost identical tuning modes, pitch names and registers in sub-sets G.5 and G.6, but with different temperaments.... Regrettably, the ancient tonal and modulation practice has long been a lost art ever since the end of the Zhou period (1075-256 B.C.).... [I]nstrumental artifacts suggest that the theoretical formula and recorded theoretical systems manifest a belated doctrine, whereas the actual music practices of the Zhou period may have been much more advanced than what was theoretically documented."

By realigning our jazz perception of John Coltrane's modal periods of the 1960s with ancient Chinese musical theoretical constructs, whether actually practiced or not, a door opens onto a cross-cultural view compatible with more than one practice alone. And once again, as "speculative theory" (which in itself seems a redundant phrase, for all theory must, on some level, carry an inherent sense of the speculative), such cross-cultural study accepts the importance of comparing historically removed concepts, traditions, and individual practices for the sake of initiating "new" theories, thus inviting the potential of transcultural considerations to emerge from the models discussed. …

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