Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album Skies of America is more often discussed for what it could have been. The famous free-jazz pioneer’s first orchestral recording, it was conceived as a suite for his quartet with backing from the London Symphony Orchestra, but a misunderstanding with the British musicians’ union prevented the other three players from joining. The resulting 41-minute cut, recorded in notoriously poor quality, features Coleman soloing above the full orchestra rather than the concerto-grosso dynamic that he had intended. Nevertheless, there is brilliance.
Coleman takes over for nearly 10 minutes on the album’s second side, at one point slowing down over a memorable cadenza until he seems to be addressing the listener directly instead of his anxious supporting strings and winds. This slice of the composition is titled “Poetry.”
In 1997, Coleman sat down for an interview with Jacques Derrida, during which the saxophonist, composer, and bandleader spoke candidly about his well-developed aesthetic vision and the practice of jazz. The interview took place ahead of Coleman’s residency at La Villette, where he was presenting “Civilization,” a program of concerts that included his first performance of Skies of America in many years. Responding to a question about the title “Civilization,” Coleman says: “I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another. I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”
Derrida is curious about the ways in which jazz can inform political action, asking, “When you say that sound is more ‘democratic,’ what do you make of that as a composer? You write music in a coded form all the same.” Coleman turns back to “Poetry,” saying, “In 1972 I wrote a symphony called Skies of America and that was a tragic event for me, because I didn’t have such a good relationship with the music scene: like when I was doing free jazz, most people thought that I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”
Derrida enthusiastically agrees: “But if I translate what you are doing into a domain that I know better, that of written language, the unique event that is produced only one time is nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation—that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation.” In short, a word isn’t a word until it’s repeated, and it doesn’t exist without that hope of repetition—and just so with musical sequences. Almost conspiratorially, Derrida and Coleman argue that it is the promise of repetition that provides order where many people hear chaos.