Essay: Musical Surrealism by John Shand

Issue 1 excerpt:  Essay

by John Shand

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Ornette Coleman believed that written music impeded natural expression, something that his 1972 encounter with the master musicians of Joujouka in Morocco only served to confirm: ‘I saw 30 of them playing non-tempered instruments in their own intonation in unison,’ he enthused to Richard Williams in Melody Maker. ‘They would change tempos, intensities and rhythm. They changed together, as if they all had the same idea, yet they hadn’t played what they were playing before they played it!’

Free improvisation already existed to varying degrees in many musical cultures, although generally there was either a predetermined form, rhythm or scale in which to work. The revolution in America, as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has observed, was about when the improviser ‘creates at that moment, through his or her wit or imagination, an arrangement of silence and sound and rhythm that has never before been heard and will never again be heard.’

Whereas the surrealists were interested in the automatic process for its own sake – exposing what the vaults of the subconscious were hiding, often with emotionally neutered results – the free improvisers still embraced that primal artistic concern of communicating, of touching and moving the listener. It was not a matter of bending or distorting the music to achieve this, so much as that ‘automatic playing’ equalled profound self-expression, which almost inevitably must reach out to those who hear it.

John Shand began writing on Australian jazz for Jazz magazine in 1981. For over 15 years he has been jazz critic for The Sydney Morning Herald. He contributed to the New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz, edited and co-wrote the 24 Hours Essential Guide to Jazz, edited Jazz’n’Blues magazine, and has been a regular jazz contributor to 24 Hours, Limelight, and Australian Hi-Fi magazines. His writing on the subject has also appeared in Vogue Australia, The (Sydney) Magazine, Rhythms, Jazzchord, Beomag, and programs for the Sydney Festival. Many Australian Jazz CDs bear his liner notes. In 2008 he published Jazz: The Australian Accent (UNSW Press). John is also a playwright and librettist.

In his essay Musical Surrealism (a variation of which appeared a decade ago in the journal East-West), Shand inspects the irony of the Surrealists’ attitudes to music, and in structures and processes inherent in the emergence and development of free improvisation.