Rambling on 2: Who is doing this? And what are they doing?

The plan for these rambles is to look at reasons why music appeals, then apply them to the one example, Ramblin’. I’ll get to that. But first, what’s happening in this performance? Maybe the explanation for why I find this medley of sounds so compelling can already be found there: who knows?

Let’s start with the absolute basics of who is doing what. The four men in the studio that afternoon in 1959 were very young, but they were doing something very old.

How young? Well, Ornette Coleman was still under thirty, the others all in their early twenties. Charlie Haden, just 22, was the youngest, but Don Cherry and Billy Higgins were just a year or so older.

All were already steeped in music. The family story went that when 22 month-old Charlie Haden heard his mother singing him to sleep one day he began humming along, in harmony, and she knew he was ready to join the family radio show in Iowa. 

Charlie (centre) a little after he joined the family ensemble

After this musically elemental debut, he sang folk and country music with his parents and brothers and sisters until a tussle with polio at 15 damaged his vocal chords and he decided to develop his playing on the double bass. 

The other three had similarly prodigious skills. But they were all building on one of the basic techniques for making noise intentionally.

The first ways of doing that, you’d guess, involved the voice or the body. We can’t know how because those sounds left no trace, although many forms of song and body percussion endure. Then cultural invention became bound up with technical invention. You have to create a vibration to make sound. An object that vibrates can be struck – as with drums or chimes. A special kind of object, a string, can be plucked or bowed (that verb gives a clue about origins). Or you can make a column of air in a tube vibrate. Beginnings remain obscure but if it feels as if these things have always been with us that is more or less true. All of those actions have commanded attention for millennia. There is always the enticing prospect of new discoveries pushing the dates back, but the oldest unequivocally musical artefacts we have are bone flutes, intact finger holes and all, from 40,000 years ago.

Recognisable drums and stringed instruments aren’t that old, though it’s fun to speculate that they might have existed in less durable forms that didn’t survive to excite archaeologists. But they certainly go back thousands of years.

And the vibrations in the air that are made when someone replays the recording of Ramblin’ began in the same ways as they always had. The instruments were highly evolved – and their precise form much more recent. But they were energised in the same fashion.

Don Cherry’s cornet (he called it a “pocket trumpet”) allowed him to use his lungs, muscles and lips to vibrate an air column. The prehistory of his instrument is echoed still in the name for corner of the orchestra where the trumpet players hang out: the horn section. But the modern trumpet is a bent metal tube, and the piston valves that make it so much easier to vary the note didn’t appear until the nineteenth century.

Likewise, the double bass is a hypertrophic violin made possible first by using overwound gut strings – in the seventeenth century. Regular strings that could sound a bass note were too thick to work with. The new-fangled ones that allowed the crafting of the bass were displaced by steel strings three hundred years later.

The saxophone, a latecomer, only started making confined air vibrate in 1846, when its developer Adolphe Sax cleverly combined the reed used in woodwind instruments with a brass horn. And the drum kit, in its familiar combination, is in fact a 20th century assembly, although the various components are much older.

The application of ingenuity to old skills is fascinating, and the technology of the actual instruments here is sophisticated. But all rely on the ancient modes of sound or rhythm production. Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Higgins are intent on striking, strumming and blowing things, using the ur-musical gesture to make new work. Until the advent of electronics, they were the only ones on offer. The players are working on their instruments with lips and tongue, fingers, hands and feet, all co-ordinated with each other via the ears (and brain). Also co-ordinated because these skills have been developed through hundreds or thousands of hours of practice and performance, in this group and others. Probably little change there through musical history either.

Electronics have altered some of the constraints now, but that’s another story. The part relevant here is that microphones and memory media make it possible to record the sounds being made, and reproduce them more or less satisfactorily long after the performance has died in the air. That of course changed the spatial and temporal existence of music – and, incidentally, the life of people lucky enough to be born after the 1870s, forever. The Edison phonograph and its many descendants affords a kind of time travel. That’s why we can go back to what these four players did back in 1959. Or can we?

2 Comments

  1. It wasn’t a cornet, Don Cherry played what is actually “pocket trumpet.” It is much smaller than a cornet or trumpet (about 22cm long), very tightly wound tubing with a smaller bell, but pitched the same in Bb as a trumpet or cornet.

    1. although pocket cornet authorities seem to insist it was in fact a cornet, specifically “a 1930’s vintage Besson MEHA pocket cornet”. Definitely small, though 🙂

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