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Steve Coleman: Symbols and Language

By Published: February 20, 2012
AAJ: You mentioned Australia. Have you ever studied Australian Aboriginal music and its relationship to history, language and culture?

SC: I'm familiar with it, but I haven't studied it in detail.

AAJ: Are you interested to go down that road at all?

SC: Yeah, I'm curious. I want to go there. I have never been there, and of course there's always a first time, but I haven't got to that yet.

AAJ: Is there another bridge going from The Mancy of Sound to the next Steve Coleman and Five Elements recording?

SC: I have been working on some things recently that have been making a very big impact on my music, in my opinion. I'm not at all sure that the general public will immediately hear this change, but to my mind there's a big change. It would be very difficult to describe the change in words, but it has to do with a kind of flexibility in the way the music is approached. I want to say more spontaneous, however spontaneity is always a part of the music, so that word may be misunderstood. Let's call it a change in the nature of the spontaneity.

AAJ: Maybe the only constant in life is change, and that seems to sum up your musical journey.

SC: This seems to be true to me also, and many times you hear that the one obvious constant in this universe is change. However, change is really movement. Change is the name we give to something when we notice a different quality that is the result of movement. So it is really movement that is the constant. Everything in this universe, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, is in motion, and that motion appears to be of a nature that is both cyclical—in the sense of spirals, not circles—and infinite.

Yeah, I'm very aware of this. My study of cycles—or it would be more accurate to say harmonics—is fundamental to my music. The structure of the physical and metaphysical universe, which humans are part of, is naturally structured in this cyclical manner. But to be conscious of this quality and to deliberately study and harmonize your activities according to these cyclical rhythmic movements—it's my belief that this makes for a more profound expression.

AAJ: At the end of the day, self-expression is what it's all about, isn't it?

SC: Well, I would rather think of it as just expression, not necessarily self-expression, but a kind of collective expression and universal expression. On a certain level, I'm not really sure that the self exists, although it's convenient for us to think from this perspective. When I spoke about nature earlier, I emphasized the word "nature." That was not accidental; I think of nature in somewhat the same manner as many people might think of God. But the word I use is "nature," which for me represents everything, including us, as one holistic, sentient structure. I don't only mean sentient in the sense of being aware or of being able to feel or perceive. My perspective of the so-called laws of the universe is that they are a form of consciousness. I hesitate to call the universe alive because I think that would be misunderstood.

When you look up the word "life" in the dictionary, it is mostly defined by what it is not, and also defined by other terms like death. Or it is defined by circular definitions, where "life" is defined by "alive," which in turn is defined by "living," which is again defined by "alive." This kind of thing occurs when it's not clear what is being referenced; people do not know what life is. In the same way, they don't really know what time is, although we use the words "life" and "time" every day. I have stated before that I believe that our perception of time is based on movement. Regarding life, it is my opinion that if the universe created us and all of the things on Earth that we call living, then the energy and condition that we call life must have already existed, so these laws that created us must themselves be alive—a kind of alive that is larger than what we commonly refer to as "alive."

So this is the main story. It's this quality that I'm trying to express, and music is the symbolic language that is the vehicle for this expression.

Selected Discography

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Mancy of Sound (Pi Recordings, 2011)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010)
Steve Coleman, Invisible Paths: First Scatterings (Tzadik, 2007)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Weaving Symbolics (Label Bleu, 2006)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Lucidarium (Label Bleu, 2004)
Anthony Tidd's Quite Sane, Child of Troubled Times (Cool Hunter Music, 2002)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Resistance is Futile (Label Bleu, 2001)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Sonic Language of Myth (BMG, 1998)
Ravi Coltrane, Moving Pictures (BMG France, 1998)
Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance, Genesis (BMG, 1997)
Abbey Lincoln, Who Used to Dance (Gitanes/Verve, 1997)
The Roots, Illadelph Halflife (DCG/Geffen, 1996)
Steve Coleman & the Mystic Rhythm Society, Myths, Modes and Means (Novus, BMG, 1995)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Def Trance Beat (Novus/BMG, 1994)
M-Base Collective, Anatomy of a Groove (Rebel-XDIW/Columbia, 1992)
Steve Coleman and Dave Holland, Phase Space (DIW Records, 1992)
Cassandra Wilson, Jump World (JMT, 1990)
Dave Holland, Triplicate (ECM, 1988)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Sine Die (Pangaea, 1987)
Gerri Allen, Open to All Sides in the Middle (Minor Music, 1987)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, World Expansion (JMT, 1986)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Motherland Pulse (JMT, 1985)
Chico Freeman, Tangents (Elektra Music, 1984)
Abbey Lincoln, Talking to the Sun (Enja, 1984)
Sam Rivers, Colors (Black Saint, 1982)

Photo Credits

Page 1: David Kauffman
Page 2: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Pages 3, 5: Tracey Collins

Page 4: Sophia Wong

Page 6: Patricia Magalhaes

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Download jazz mp3 “Jan 18” by Steve Coleman
  • Jan 18
  • Steve Coleman
  • The Mancy of Sound