Tag Archives: Jacques Derrida

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.


It’s Lonely at the Top – Nietzsche, Mother Teresa and Non-Coercive Leadership

I returned to my old paperback copy of Zarathustra recently, this time in connection with some work I’ve been doing on the topic of non-coercive power, or what I have been calling the power of asking. I’ve been developing some thoughts around this mantra: The power of asking will always be greater than the power of command. So it seemed to me I ought to come to terms with or at least try to deepen my understanding of what Nietzsche says in this book about command, or coercive power.

I was specifically interested in the pronouncement made in “The Stillest Hour” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, chapter 44):

‘…You are one who has unlearned obeying: now shall you command!’
‘Do you not know who is most needed by all? The one who commands great things.
‘To accomplish great things is difficult: but more difficult is to command great things.
‘That is what is most unpardonable in you: You have the power and you do not want to rule.’

It’s a chapter of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that has attracted a lot of important commentary, from Jung’s seminars on Zarathustra in the 1930s to Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign seminars in 2001-2. It’s a crux, a point of departure, and it’s also a spot where I might have to take my leave of Nietzsche. How are we to read the injunction here to “command” anew, or to “rule” according to one’s “power”, after one has “unlearned obeying”?

It’s an easy rhetorical move to make, from obeying to commanding, but it seemed to me it also might involve a serious misstep — to unlearn obedience, only to take up, or institute, command.

Put aside for the moment the questionable judgment of “what is most needed by all,” and the ethical as well as the political consequences that judgment, or others like it, could have and historically have had. I am equally wary of the emphasis here on doing and commanding “great” things, or at least wary of misreading it. The pursuit of “great things” (Großes) tends to invite and encourage, or at least excuse, all sorts of abuses.

To wield coercive power, to direct or to command great things may indeed be difficult, even more difficult than doing great things; but it is harder still, I think, and it is really the more urgent project, to unlearn obedience and command and to learn, instead, the practice of non-coercive power.

If that means scaling down from great to small, then I’m happy to start small and, if need be, stay small. I’m not suggesting we stop dreaming and doing great things, taking on big challenges, imagining great enterprises, but in most cases I am inclined to urge and apply something like the rule of Mother Teresa: “don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…. The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.” (That much misquoted line, by the way, is from her “Instructions to the M.C. Sisters,” October 30th, 1981, as cited by Brian Kolodiejchuk in Come Be My Light.)

Here, I imagine, Nietzsche might wish take his leave of me, or at least Nietzscheans and devout Catholics alike will cry out in exasperation or horror at the unholy coupling I’ve just imagined. But I suspect that when all is said and done, these two points of view can be reconciled, or at least they are not so far apart as they may at first seem. Consider, just for starters, the answer Zarathustra receives when he objects that he lacks the lion’s voice for command: “Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world.’”

More on that another day. Here I want only to point out the thing that was on my mind this morning: that is Zarathustra’s sadness as he takes leave of his friends at the close of the second book. My Stillest Hour, Zarathustra’s “terrible mistress” — “or something,” which speaks to him “voicelessly” — has “ordered” him to to leave. He obeys. Yes, obeys; he announces at the start of the chapter that he is “unwillingly obedient,” unwillig-folgsam. He comes to his friends deeply troubled and unhappy; and after he has recounted the conversation with his mistress he is overwhelmed:

when Zarathustra had spoken these words, the force of his pain and the nearness of the parting from his friends overwhelmed him, such that he wept loudly; and no one knew how to console him. That night, however, he went away alone and left his friends.

Zarathustra will “go as a shadow of that which must come: thus will you command, and thus lead the way.” But to command and to lead he must “mellow.” As his mistress tells him, his fruits are ripe, but he is not ripe for his fruits: “so,” she continues, “you must go back to your solitude.” To deprive himself of all human society may, in fact, prepare Zarathustra to command great things; but it’s painful to leave his friends. So painful that he weeps — loudly.

Exile may be the price Zarathustra must pay to overcome himself and lead the way. It’s lonely at the top, and Zarathustra’s mountain is no exception. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves of less romantic and heroic ideas of what it means to lead.

Unlearn obeying and then, the most difficult thing of all: unlearn command. If we practice non-coercive leadership, we can learn to create and share power with others, without reverting to command or obedience, and without taking our leave of those we love.