The Infinite Possibilities of Coltrane’s Magic Square

Published on 17.02.2017, 18:33

Towards the end of the summer of 1965, John Coltrane left his studio with the drafts of a composition which was to serve as the foundational text for a whole new genre. Having isolated himself from his young family for five days, and having gone clean again after many narcotic misadventures, he now immersed himself in the spirituality of the Black Church’s rhetorical rhythms, drawing on the same source as Barack Obama would do for his speeches later. A Love Supreme, the title of the work in question, had already been divided into roughly four movements, the first of which included the famous series of four notes that structure his base harmony: G - B flat, G - C; including, here and there, some schematic indications for the piano or the bass and, in the bottom margin of Coltrane’s score, the following exclamation: All paths lead to God / Prayer entitled – A Love Supreme - all hastily scribbled down in small, clumsy letters in ballpoint.

But there was more. Coltrane was deeply submerged in the spiritual dynamics of his time. He saw music as the sovereign expression of spirituality, as well as the deepest expression of the identity of black culture. He had completed these sketches by offering up a psalm on paper, a psalm for which he drew inspiration from the style of the Black Preachers, and which he based on three principles: elation, elegance, exaltation.

The foundations had been laid for one of the most revolutionary jazz records of the 20th century - the recording of which was completed in one extensive take, ecstatic and uninterrupted, accompanied by the trio who had been with Coltrane for years: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrisson on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.

A Love Supreme proved to be a bombshell. Utterly innovative, it opened vertiginous perspectives of which even a pop musician such as Carlos Santana had to admit that he didn’t understand it in the slightest - only to return to Coltrane’s piece many years later, recording it himself after A Love Supreme’s musical ramifications had revealed their full potential.

Coltrane’s pièce de résistance remains just as spectacular and timeless today as it was 50 years ago. Around a few small central themes, the four musicians build up their absolute improvisational freedom, using it to push jazz’s musical boundaries ever further. As is often customary in jazz, the four notes of the first theme correspond to the four syllables in the title. The first movement, whilst also being the most well-known, is also the most accessible one; in the end, all the musicians engage in a communal singing session (or, rather, crooning sessions), uttering the words "A love supreme" like an incantation, bordering on the edge of ecstasy.

Each of the four movements is given a determinate title:  Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm. Similarly each sequence covers the ascending levels of a spiritual exercise: Revelation, Commitment, Loyalty, Thanksgiving. The basic tempos might change, but it is in the structure itself in which Coltrane’s total freedom of musical spirit is revealed. The grace of his musical process, as paradoxical as this may seem at first sight, promises to hit us with some black, violent, exhilarating, heartbreaking and revolutionary music. Coltrane also offers us a literal expression of the political turmoil of the 1960s, to be found in the very materiality of his music: as if possessed by a demon, he would spent years dissecting the circle of fifths and its implications on the modal play - a little like Bach had done before him with classical harmony when in the Well-Tempered Clavier.  On his wall one could always find a large drawing of the circle of fifths – Coltrane assiduously studied it while practicing his pieces.

By tirelessly combining short musical phrases, the quartet offers up an open and completely modal (and, often, far from tonal) musical structure, perfectly homologous with the spiritual openness for which Coltrane had aimed. One should add, however, that the revolutionary rhythms coined by Elvin Jones, found their progeny in the complexities of traditional African percussionists, while the inimitable style of McCoy, tracking Coltrane's modal movements, propels the protagonist to new and unexpected levels of expression. All of this, of course, was expectedly extraordinary for its time: a piece music basing itself on Black Culture, exerting a politicity reminiscent of the time of Malcolm X and Luther King. A Love Supreme was also, however, a rather straightforward religious incantation, inherited from Black Preachers. Musically, it was just as complex and superb as Charlie Parker and bebop or Schoenberg and dodecaphony: A Love Supreme released an unheard sexual energy, although being constantly tempered by religious "elegance and exaltation".

Yet while the whole of Coltrane’s composition is extremely well measured, its greatest feat appears later, in the final movement, aptly named the Psalm: backed by his three musicians, who each follow their own musical route, Coltrane wages something incomparable, "playing" the syllables of the religious poem he had written himself. One could try it oneself, listening to the music while reading Coltrane’s original words – it remains, after all those year, truly incredible. Coltrane in ecstasy, bellowing his prayer into his tenor saxophone.

How could one possible go about translating something like A Love Supreme, this colossal block of music, into something as light and abstract as contemporary dance? Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker waged the challenge in 2005, in collaboration with Salva Sanchis, using her intuitive understanding of this incredible piece of music together with her own formal genius. It is this production which is presented to you today, in 2017, completely rewritten, following a decade's worth of choreographic research, and performed by a wholly new group of young dancers.

The starting point remains stunningly simple: four male dancers seize the interplay between the four musicians in Coltrane's quartet. Yet, in the choreographic rendering, nothing is ever illustrative or anecdotal. Certainly, some dance moves may evoke a bass arpeggio, a feather-light tap on the snare drum, a certain melodic inflection. Everyone breathes the freedom that Coltrane had already experienced when he played in his piece in his characteristically open and modal style: anything can change in the blink of an eye, the smallest detail could offer a new perspective, while the musical direction follows its own formal line. Each dancer must, at any given moment, take full responsibility for his or her positioning within this cosmos of sounds. This endows the performance with a feature nearly ethical: A Love Supreme is about consistently extending our understanding of the ‘authentic’ – a radical task for young dancers, a learning experience like no other.

The dance floor is thus transformed, as is often the case with De Keersmaeker, into a kind of spatial metaphor, not only for Coltrane's basic score, but also for the expressive complexity of the total improvisation that continues to govern the logical essence of Coltrane’s piece. The dancers move to music that may not be intended for this specific purpose, but almost seems made for them when placed in the right hands – if possessing the right sensitivity. The result is poignant in its humility, even if this simplicity also includes extreme ambition, confronting questions like: how can the body's freedom incorporate the promise of total openness of this music and translate it? How do we reproduce this indomitable momentum so fully? This question is implicitly found in recent work by Salva Sanchis; his last show, Radical Light, provided a crystal clear answer that left an impression on this revival of this previous choreography.

The number 4 shows up everywhere in Coltrane's life: a quartet of musicians, a suite in four movements, his tempos being perpetually measured in 4/4 time, a spiritual ascension of four levels... From all this flow all kinds of combinations, cross-sections and openings. The number 4 as the number of seclusion, existence in itself and then unfolding in every direction. And this is exactly what the performance shows us: the four dancers each temporarily exit whenever 'their' instrument goes quiet – yet this doesn’t imply that, perhaps, in the next instant, they won't be taking on another instrument as their preferred role.

In art history, one finds the "magic square" in Dürer's depiction of the mythological character of Melancholy: an allegorical figure contemplating the powers of numbers while gazing gloomily at the horizon, contemplating the infinite mathematical possibilities that the human race will never be able to fully capture. Her melancholy is at one with her fascination: thus, in spite of appearances, a finite object – a numerical series – is capable of including the concept of infinity. The ecstatic elegance of this music, as it is redrawn, understood, experienced and danced in this performance, bears witness to the same intuition: an infinite number of possibilities is trapped in the ingenuity of a subtle and brilliant form. It is the same perspective with which Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis have captured and breathed new life into the musical heritage of Coltrane's A Love Supreme: by giving it back to the breathing and thinking body from which it originated.

© Stefan Hertmans, January 2017
With thanks to Peter Hertmans for the fabulous listening session in preparation for and the discussion we had together following this production.