I don’t need Cage to teach me about applying indeterminacy and Zen to music
when I’ve got Legba / Ellegua / Eshu devotees in my life and access to what Joseph Jarman & Milford Graves share
— melvin gibbs (@melvingibbs) June 2, 2021
When forms of musical analysis based on Western norms are used to examine music based on African philosophical concepts, that analysis will erase as much as it sees. Traditional African philosophy embodies concepts that were not embraced in the West until the 20th century. The intellectual constructs that underlie quantum mechanics and complexity theory—concepts that problematized, even overturned, hundreds of years of Western scientific thought—are embedded in traditional African thought and sit easily and unpretentiously there.
One of those constructs is The Crossroads.
The crossroads is an important landmark in the African-American psyche. Legend has it that’s where the seminal blues guitarist Robert Johnson went to get the talent that made him the great he is. It’s said that he went there to make a deal with the Devil, and that deal gave him the power of the Blues. But it needs to be noted that it is Christians, people who see a hierarchical order with pure static being as the structure of the Universe, that have deemed what happens in the crossroads a ‘deal with the Devil.’ They framed the energy of the crossroads as blasphemous, as the antithesis of righteousness. They did that because the energy of the crossroads literally does not fit into their order. The energy of the crossroads fits into an alternative order, an order that came to the U.S. from the African continent.
In the orders of the African peoples that were forcibly brought to the New World, as in quantum mechanics, indeterminacy is one of the ruling powers. In those ontologies, evolutionary recombination, not a pure static being, structures the Universe. And indeterminacy is the force that enables that recombination. The Crossroads is the physical representation of the primal meeting place where indeterminacy rules, allowing recombination to power evolution: it represents the liminal, the slidable, the un-nail-down-able. When it’s personified so it can be more easily communicated with, some of its many names are Legba, Ellegua, and Eshu. African – Americans in the southern U.S. named him “The Big Black Man”. This Big Black Man, personified Indeterminacy, the antithesis of platonic order, is the Devil that Robert Johnson went to see in The Crossroads. Antithetical indeterminacy gave Robert Johnson the power to play the blues.
The legend of Robert Johnson teaches us that Black music holds Indeterminacy in its core. Once you understand that, it seems logical, almost inevitable, that one of the towering figures of the blues bears the name Muddy Waters, a name that unpretentiously points to a structure and process (the flow of dirt in a moving body of water) that couldn’t be properly analyzed until the concepts of system dynamics and complexity theory were developed. Like the Crossroads itself, Black music lets seemingly humble symbolism hide the fact that it’s a meeting point of networks and dynamic systems.
The fact that indeterminacy is built into the music meant that Black music would take a different structural path than the orderly determined music anchored in Platonic and post-Platonic philosophical constructs. This music sounds the way it does because it seeks to solve a different set of creative problems. The performance parameters embraced by practitioners of the music exist to literally give voice to an alternative ontology. To that end, the music tends to be performed through structures that exhibit a flattened hierarchy. Musical voices intertwine and harmonize in a way that critics and analysts often derisively dubbed primitive and chaotic. It’s ironic that in the 21st century those qualities, the qualities of primitive operation and chaotic expansion, are the qualities that define complex systems, Music constructed in terms of African philosophical traditions tends to be both figuratively and literally bottom up, with the bass frequencies and instruments being most important and prominent in the aesthetic of the music. This is the antithesis of the ordered music of the European orchestral tradition, where the music exhibits a clear hierarchy and the treble range is foregrounded.
People who see divine order as the Highest Good traditionally see indeterminacy as their philosophical enemy, as the Devil. This would be a good time to note that basically every form of African-American music has been considered the devil’s music. The blues, jazz, rock and roll, hip-hop – all have been called stigmatized in that way. We see now what that really means is that they all introduced a factor of indeterminacy into American culture. But we’re not philosophical Christians. We’re here to praise indeterminacy, not bury it. I’m going to highlight a few of the many ways that indeterminacy powers African-American music, from the most avant-garde to the most traditional. In principle, these examples extend to all the music that has evolved using African-American musical innovations as their basis.
Musical innovator Ornette Coleman did not count his music off. His music begins with 2 words: Ready? Play. In fact, “Ready? Play.” is the default method of starting musical creation in the avant-garde/free jazz/ Great Black Music world. Harriet Tubman, the cooperative band that includes Brandon Ross and J.T. Lewis, both veterans of Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Threadgill’s band and myself, don’t even do that. We just give each other a look and go.
Tempo, in situations where that is the correct word to use, comes from each individual’s internal clock, which, when combined with the other internal clocks, forms a collective clock that generates a structure that’s musically analogous to space-time. Often, tempo is not even the correct word. Series of events is often a more correct description. Sometimes even metaphorical terms like cloud are more accurate. Time in those musical contexts is emergent, and emergent time is one of the defining features of this music.
Ornette Coleman wrote his music down using a method somewhat akin to traditional music notation. But, his written music always works in tandem with a strategic component that provides orientation and points towards a basis for each individual’s contribution to the music. This strategic component, which Ornette called Harmolodics, is a structure that both facilitates and channels individual expression. The greats of avant-garde black music such as Cecil Taylor, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, all developed their particular strategic components that they deploy alongside their traditionally notated music. One could say their notated music functions as a sort of Crossroads, a symbolic space that’s the ground for indeterminacy.
The structure that emerges from that symbolic space doesn’t just encompass the musicians spontaneously composing music. Music that emerges from The Crossroads comes from a tradition that considers the audience a partner to and participant in the performance. It is expected that the audience will introduce their own nonlinearities, their own indeterminacies. African-American music, In fact, most African and African-derived music, is built with this in mind. The receivers of the music, as well as the technology that underpins the mode of transmission, are not static objects that music is poured into.
Artists who emerged from the no-wave scene gained a similar understanding. I once had a memorable conversation with no-wave icon Arto Lindsay about a particular improvisation that we delivered which I thought had failed to hold the audience’s attention. His response, “Sometimes I want them to be bored,” perplexed me. Bored? Why would you want them to be bored? After pondering his words, I realized that what he wanted was for people to enter a mentally indeterminate space, a space of indeterminate listening.
Examining the various modes of musical expression, we see that making musical instruments do something other than what they were designed to do is one of the hallmarks of African-American music. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar distortion and feedback, Pharoah Sanders’ saxophone multiphonics, Sonny Sharrock’s slide guitar work, Alice Coltrane‘s technique of turning her organ off mid-note… these are interventions to get in between and around the notes and parameters dictated by Western harmony.
Another irony: well-tempered Western notes are out of tune when you consider the tuning systems that are found on the African continent. This tension between the Western tuning system and the tuning systems found on the African continent provided the basis for a mode of performance that exploits this indeterminacy that Robert Johnson (allegedly) went to The Crossroads to master.
The methods developed to manipulate the indeterminacy of the “blue notes” created forms of vocal and instrumental musical practice that are now standard worldwide. Techniques for music creation and performance that emerged because of the evolutionary pressure of the African cultural imperative in the West are the backbone of music-making today. To see music, whose creation is based in and on that imperative, from the standpoint of European philosophical constructs, is to fundamentally misunderstand how current music operates. That music – music from The Crossroads – incorporated indeterminacy in a way that allowed it to fuel musical evolution across the planet. It’s time for that music to be seen on its own terms.
Melvin Gibbs is a bassist based in NY. He has been called “the greatest bassist in the world” by Time Out New York magazine and is the 2019 winner of JazzTimes Magazine’s Critics Poll in the Electric Bass category. He is a member of the band Harriet Tubman and his EP “4 + 1 equals 5 for May 25” was recently released on Northern Spy Records.