Steve Coleman on Musical Freedom

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After some initial difficulties with a truant Q train yesterday afternoon, I made it to Steve Coleman's workshop at SEEDS::Brooklyn. When I walked in, a group of participants were in the midst of working with a clavĂ© rhythm over "Indiana," which was the focus for most of the 3-hour workshop. I don't feel at liberty to talk in any technical capacity about the concepts discussed, especially considering my unfamiliarity with them, but I was really impressed by how casual but focused the workshop was. These workshops have been going on since late May and will be happening every Tuesday for the rest of this month; if you're around New York and are free/can get off work on Tuesday between 1-4 p.m., I highly recommend attending if you haven't had much exposure to Coleman's music. The $15 cover for 3 hours is a steal, and when I went, the workshop was moderately attended—a surprise to me, considering what a musical force he's been over the years and as an influence to younger generations of creative improvisers. 

I did want to share one thought that Steve Coleman offered at the workshop, which related to the idea of musical freedom. In his own words, musical freedom isn't as helpful an abstract idea as the idea of choices in music (an idea I first heard at Banff last year, when Vijay Iyer emphasized the importance of active musical decision-making when improvising). He said:

There’s really no such thing as freedom. You can sound freer because you have more choices, but there’s no such thing as absolute freedom; you’re always going to have limitations. I talk about getting to Flatbush the other day: if I have five ways to get to Flatbush, maybe I’m freer than somebody who has one way, but I still only got five ways. Somebody who has ten ways might be more free than me. Freedom…I don’t even look at that word—I just look at choices. How many choices do you have? How many options do you have? How many choices can you make? This can already be demonstrated with actual music that already exists in the past, but once you begin to hear like that, then the music you heard in the past that you thought you knew will sound different to you. I’m talking about Sonny Rollins, Bird, all of that stuff will sound different to you when you can hear these rhythms as melodies. You’ll hear them as sounding different than maybe how you hear them now. That’s based on my experience; that’s what I find. 
On the other hand, we often talk about how the tyranny of choice is an everyday occurrence in the digital age—that is, the paralysis that attends exposure to too many options at one time. Coleman isn't talking about quite the same thing, since many musical options aren't passively available for our choosing as YouTube videos or streaming movies/TV shows are, but I think that this problem does apply. Considering limited resources (mostly time), what options do we cultivate as musicians so that we can employ them for artistic ends when the time comes? At another point during the workshop, Coleman mentioned the value of practicing creatively—another concept I first heard at Banff—which went along the lines of: if you practice patterns, then you'll be performing patterns; if you practice creating, then you'll be creating when you perform (Coleman attributed this to Von Freeman, I think). 

I see a typical short-term/long-term issue here: if you practice lots of patterns, then you'll sound much more proficient and much more accomplished sooner, but if you practice developing the facility and flexibility to really improvise in any given situation, you might not sound "proficient" or accomplished until far down the road. You might not even sound proficient then, since you'll always be pushing yourself to play new things, which will inevitably include mistakes. Interestingly, this long-term approach makes me think of the Tristano school of playing—maybe there's an essay to be written about a possible connection here, but that's for another time. 

Lastly, I was perusing some of the interviews Coleman's put up on and was pleased to find that he calls out Aristotle in an interview with Nate Chinen from 1999. 
In our culture in general, we make a distinction between what people think and what's intuitive. You always hear this right brain, left brain stuff. It started with Aristotle, and it's so ingrained that people can't imagine that there's anything other than that. 
It makes me wonder if he's read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.