Music Collectives

Part 3. M-Base: Texts and Contexts (by Vijay Iyer – copyright 1996)

(excerpt from a larger 1996 essay – Steve Coleman, M-Base, and Music Collectivism)

It is in this context that I would like to discuss the more recently founded musical collective known as M-Base, and particularly the work of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, generally regarded as the “founder” of this movement. Rather than beginning with biographical information, I choose as a point of entry into the discourses of M-Base the liner notes to “the first album of the entire M-Base Collective,” Anatomy of a Groove (1992). One could easily begin elsewhere; but this album could be the first that truly set in writing some of the overarching premises of the collective, in short texts designed for mass consumption. The average consumer might purchase this album because of its well-known personnel (saxophonists Coleman and Greg Osby, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and others), knowing nothing of the underlying concepts until reading from the liner notes. Coleman writes in these notes,

[T]he ability to perceive intuition and logic as one “science” [helps give] African and African-American musics their distinctive quality and character. Western perception generally separates the intuitive and the logical. I feel that this process frequently results in a “misunderstanding” of non-Western ideals; thus Western standards are used to judge idioms not based on these standards. This of course is difficult to understand logically.

The technical element of this music is most difficult to explain … (Coleman, in M-Base Collective, Anatomy of a Groove liner notes)

In defying “logical” explanation, the M-Base Collective presents its music as fundamentally different from Euro-American forms, as stemming from the “Afrological,” to borrow Lewis’s term (Lewis 1995b). In this way, as with Sun Ra’s language of “outer space,” M-Base “others” itself from Western sensibilities, in the active sense suggested by Mackey (1995), resisting appropriation, explanation, or pejorative pigeonholing by the dominant culture. In M-Base discourses, the cloudy word “intuition” becomes a powerful rhetorical device with a twofold function. It is used, in a manner that may appear evasive, to encapsulate a range of musical practices that defy explanation in Western musical, or even verbal, terms. When asked by an outsider how they “think about” certain technical aspects of some music, musicians in Coleman’s group might give the cryptic and abrupt answer, “Intuition.” On the other hand, among the musicians themselves, the same term has a well-understood sense. It seems (to this author, a fledgling M-Base participant) to embody both the privileging of non-verbal communication via shared musical knowledge, and the emphasis on creative process in the music, rather than on realization of premeditated activities.

The neologistic name of the collective also fulfills this “othering” function, resisting simple interpretation by controlling the discourse about its identity. The acronym “M-Base,” when expanded to “Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations,” remains impenetrable, and demands (of those who ask) careful follow-up inquiry. As a newer member of the collective, I submit an initial interpretation of a certain set (array) of predispositions, shared by a large community (macro-base), about making creative music (structured extemporizations) — in other words, a shared, common standpoint for creative improvisation. This should not be interpreted as a “style,” but rather as a “stance” — an approach to creativity.

Since its coinage, however, the term has acquired many different levels of meaning. In the same liner notes, which offer (characteristically) a multiplicity of perspectives, Cassandra Wilson writes:

What’s M-BASE? It’s more than just what the acronym states… More and more I find it’s a way of life. It’s a way of living truth at the crossroads. A means by which we can develop our musical capabilities to their fullest, thereby expanding, redefining and propelling the music into the 21st century and beyond. It’s a spiritual movement
(Wilson, in M-Base Collective, Anatomy of a Groove liner notes)

The Signifyin(g) reference to the Afrological metaphor of the crossroads operates as yet another “othering” assertion of black identity — referencing a shared, private vocabulary. Meanwhile her language of progress into the future and self-actualization find (apparent) complication in the words “spiritual movement.” Her purposefully brief, cryptic comments conjure up multiplicities of meaning that play off of each other.

Saxophonist Greg Osby, writing in the same context, emphasizes the focus on innovation by the M-Base “new-seekers”; only at the end of his essay does he mention the “ever-present belief that there are new ways to present old ideologies.” (Osby, ibid ) In its context, the reference to the “old” only makes “logical” sense if one refers back to Coleman’s lengthier comments. In contrast to Osby, Coleman emphasizes the continuity of their music with that of their predecessors, both recent and distant.

M-BASE uses the same concepts of communication, balance and emotional structures as many African-American forms of music in the past … [I]t is closely aligned with the music of musicians in the 40’s an 50’s (Parker, Roach, Monk, Coltrane, etc.) but is also influenced by the popular rhythm-based music of our youth… Just as important, M-BASE is spiritually (and technically) influenced thru ancient ancestral ties with Africa. (Coleman, ibid. )

These three short texts, which play off of one another, appear in the context of “the first album of the entire M-Base Collective,” in which many of the members have contributed original compositions and taken part in the production and engineering of the recording. The package presents an independent, growing and changing, African-American microcommunity with complex, fluid, self-defined identities.

Adding to the meanings of M-Base is a document by Steve Coleman on his World Wide Web site, entitled “M-Base, an explanation”:

For us [M-Base] means expressing our experiences through music that uses improvisation and structure as two of its main ingredients. There is no limitation on the kind of structures or the type of improvisation, or the style of the music. The main goal is to creatively express our experiences as they are today and to try and build common creative musical languages in order to do this on some kind of large collective level

M-Base is a way of thinking about creative music… (Coleman, “M-Base”)

Again drawing from Taylor’s collection of interviews, we see that these intents conform readily to previous Afrological musical perspectives, such as one voiced here by percussionist Max Roach:

Taylor: I think it was in the 1950’s that you began putting a message in your music. Can you tell me about it?

Roach: Two theories exist. One is that art is for the sake of art, which is true; the other theory, which is also true, is that the artist is like a secretary, whether he is a writer, a musician, or a painter: He keeps records of his time, so to speak. … My music tries to say how I really feel, and I hope it mirrors in some way how black people feel in the United States. (Taylor 1977:112)

Again we see the characteristically Afrological emphasis on personal narrative indicated by Lewis above. Coleman notes in the same WWW document that in this and other ways, “M-Base is no different than many other creative perspectives that have come before.” (Coleman, “M-Base”)

In a more recent interview with the author, Coleman describes the initial goals of the M-Base Collective, retrospectively, in somewhat broader terms:

My goal was, and is to express the relationship of mankind, myself in particular to everything else, through music (or some sort of organized sound). Since I do not live in this universe alone I feel that this is best done by more than one person at a time, or groups of people. I’ve always wanted to be around other creative individuals so that is why I hook up with others. If it is called a collective or not really is not the point for me, it’s the work that gets done and trying to stay on this path of creative expression. (Coleman, “An Interview”)

In defining the concept as broadly as he does — avoiding specificity of style, sound, or structure, while emphasizing personal narrative, relational perspectives, and the language of “universals” — Coleman builds into M-Base a kind of global communalism, in the sense described by Ladzekpo above. Again, to requote Lewis, “The focus of musical discourse suddenly shifts from the individual creator to the collective, the individual as a part of global humanity.” (Lewis 1995a) Yet at the same time, Coleman in the above quote displays a step away from the goals of the building of a common musical language or “array.” The collectivism has been abstracted, generalized. This move is discussed more towards the end of this paper, to which I also defer discussion of Coleman’s career and activities.

Vijay Iyer’s entire essay can be viewed on the Internet Archive