Pushing the Expressive Envelope: Gut-wrenching Music

(some observations on John Coltrane's "Transition")
Matt Wuolle 1994

A person is telling you a story with an animated urgency, using timbral modification of speech, cries, and bodily/facial gestures. Their purpose is to invoke in you the strongest feeling of the experience of the story, i.e., this is an extremely dramatic, multi-sensory presentation. In order to vividly capture the urgency of this event, some compromises will be made in terms of perfect staging, timbre, and clear, coherent thought processes that are usually presented in easy-to-absorb fashion. Failure or breakdown are possibilities in the midst of its exigency; it is not a predictable performance. Understanding of all the discreet words is not a necessity, because there are so many locutionary, paralinguistic, and kinesic ques that give meaning as well. These are ways of re-experiencing the story that retain much of the immediacy of the original experience. There is already a large body of intellectual investigation on these parameters and their significance (for examples, see Poyatos). I believe these parameters are important to musical presentations as well, especially those of an urgent nature. It is this very urgency that brings to the musical foreground such things as saxophone honks, strained timbre, fast strings of almost indecipherable notes, and erratic rhythmic gestures. All of these are given at a compressed, rapid-fire pace in John Coltrane's saxophone work on "Transition". It is as if someone started out trying to relate information about an important event with relative stability and moderate pacing, but as they went along they worked themselves into a frenzy since they became so involved with the story themselves, and, the telling of the story.

This piece starts with a fairly common jazz song setup. A sixteen-bar 'tune' is repeated twice through with some subtle inflections, supported by a 'groove' oriented texture that moves to the familiar 'walking bass' feel for the last eight bars of the form. The tune is of an expository nature, based on four-bar 'riffs' that are quite similar. Even here, the pickup note in two different phrases is not played 'cleanly.' It is as if someone made a 'croaking' sound at the very beginning of their sentence, not trained to consciously control the artifacts of their excitement about having the opportunity to speak. In Coltrane's language this is a perfectly acceptable form of expression: it is to be cultivated, not eliminated. He realizes that speaking spontaneously and with fervor may include an occasional glitch, but it is not a glitch since the important part of the message lies in its immediacy--not in its grace.

[All timings refer to Impulse CD, John Coltrane "Transition" GRD-124]

The tenor saxophone solo begins in a relaxed manner at time 0:39, playing a singable melody. By 0:59 we get our first raspy tone, the phrase beginning with a hoarse-voice for an instant, then returning to 'normal.' Our first 'abnormal' speech pattern appears at 1:04 when we hear a short convoluted line of 'babble.' Did you catch all that (pitch-interval wise)? No, I can't remember the notes, but I can generally remember the gesture--it has a compelling sound of its own and stands out in our perception since this is the first time in the piece we have heard the saxophone dip down to its lowest register. And it is not presented politely: it sounds rough and raw. Obviously this music is not about showing how beautifully the tenor sax can speak in this register. After a moment's breath, a louder, exclamatory figure reaches well beyond the comfortable range of normal speaking voice; the timbre is strained and bizarre. Significantly, we were somewhat unprepared for this timbral-registral event. We did not get the chance to work slowly and comfortably up into the screetchy altissimo register; no, this extreme timbral juxtaposition was just thrust upon us. From 1:08-1:14 another kind of situation is presented: distortion and normalcy merged into a single line. The close temporal co-existence of these two is hardly acknowledged by Coltrane, no apologies, no pretensions of doing something 'hip.' In his world this kind of hybridization must be accepted as a norm. Now we have been introduced to the kind of territory that is up for exploration, a musical discourse that can drastically change its form within one minute of when it started or in the midst of a single, short phrase.

This almost schizophrenic dramatic portrayal does not really seem that outlandish due to the firm grounding of the rest of the band. It is this kind of framework which allows Coltrane to explore the nether-regions of behaviour, and the listener is led to believe that this is an acceptable discourse as well, since the other guys in the band are doing things pretty similar to what folks have come to think of as a musical support system. It is interesting that we can tolerate, even enjoy, the most bizarre sounds when they are presented in a safe context (like over a steady rhythmic groove). Perhaps we enjoy the thrill without having to fear a dangerous situation. It is fascinating to watch/listen to a 'lunatic' or an unfamiliar wild animal if we don't have to worry about the consequences to our own body.

Hard-Hat Area: Group Concept and Jobs

In this work explosive saxophone outbursts are supported by a group concept which simultaneously heightens and grounds the drama. Heightened intensity is accomplished through the aggressive presentation of specific 'job types' by the other group members, including the jobs of maintaining constant rhythmic flow in fields of acoustical space. For example, Elvin Jones' bass drum occupies a specific timbral field that temporally unfolds as a presence, that, although not rigidly regular, it is always 'there' in the sense that one would notice if it were suddenly removed from the texture (amoung other jobs that are maintained by Jones and other players). This kind of continuity grounds the overall texture; a loose, fluid grid is established in relation to what Coltrane does (a 'groove,' a rhythmic foundation for the main speaker to 'freak-out' over). Grounding of this type creates subtle rhythmic tension between saxophone and bass drum, while at the same time giving the listener something of low register sound that is less erratic to hold on to (like a somewhat irregular heartbeat, which is timbrally predictable and has a rhythmic constancy). This is only one relationship; consider each ongoing job-type and the situation becomes increasingly complex.

The presentation is dependent upon group interaction, it is a 'collective' endeavor. Consider the hybrid line containing distortion and normalcy that was mentioned above (time 1:08-1:14). As Coltrane breaks into new timbral-gestural territory, the band responds with new, heightened activity. McCoy Tyner (piano) maintains his job-type, 'chording,' but gives a string of ascending chromatic altered dominants. His catalyst seems to be Coltrane's ascending 'croaked' timbre gesture, although Tyner shows independence by continuing upward even as Coltrane descends. We come back to the original 'groove' after this short flight. He did not just respond by imitating Coltrane, but he did complement the gesture with a part that had its own individuality and intensity. This is what I mean by understanding the job while remaining flexible to the situation. In the concept of jazz, this is understood as a very basic operating mode.


By the late 1950's John Coltrane had already proven his ability to make an effective presentation over some of the hardest, fastest 'changes' in jazz history on his composition "Giant Steps." He had also mastered bop formats, blues, mode-based compositions, ballads, and an almost perverse motivic-development approach (it has been said that he practically exhausted the melodic and rhythmic permutative possibilities of a motive within a single solo). He was simultaneously praised for being a new trend-setter and criticized for playing too many notes, too fast, and with an "angry" tone which included occasional choked notes and honks. It is with this huge background of dramatic musical discourse in traditional jazz soloing that Coltrane begins to increasingly explore and cultivate a language which treats the honks, shrieks, and cries as material for musical development. Certainly the 1965 recording of "Transition" proves that this new language was already fully integrated in some performances.

A 'Gut-wrenching' Performance

Starting at time 7:29, Coltrane launches into his second solo in a fashion similar to his first solo, using a husky robust timbre to announce a straight-forward melodic phrase. At 7:38 he is already cultivating a 'scratchy' sound, although the pitch-phrase still seems to be the central object. 7:43-8:00. Now he really seems to be 'digging in' to the high, scratchy timbre via a heavy accent, longer durations, and tiny spaces between some of the 'notes' which has the effect of emphasizing the roughness of the attack even more. This sounds more like strained speech than a technically convincing 'jazz' solo. To produce a timbre like this with the voice, one would have to jump into a range above that of normal speaking, and the mode of production would yield a feeling of physical straining of the vocal chords.

This passage is not merely accompanied by the group. Elvin Jones' drumming here could only be described as turbulent; this is the kind of energy a drummer usually generates at the peak of a solo. Witness the extraordinary effect at 7:38 when Elvin isolates a snare drum-roll that seems to attach itself to the end of Coltrane's last note of the phrase; it seems as if time is suspended for an instant while we wait for the anticipated downbeat. This technical device creates physical and psychological excitement-the anticipation would not be possible in a context where no downbeat had been previously established.

The next six minutes of this piece is truly electrifying, therefore I make no claim that mere words can do justice to this musical experience. Starting at 8:00 Coltrane takes a short detour heading South, slurring his words and using a heavy 'drawled' out sound. Stuttering is then induced: he gets stuck on a short phrase, repeating it with subtle variation four times. Time seems frozen for a moment as we are given a chance to be curious for 8 seconds. This is suspense: "what might happen next?" These techniques are important if one is concerned with creating drama, and Coltrane is a master dramatist. He is going to milk every intense moment for all its worth while at the same time keeping his mind on that larger climax up the road. This is achieved by an amazing inventiveness on every musical level: pitch, timbre, gesture, rhythm, phrase, etc. Oops! 8:23, back on the main road at full throttle, we've got to make up for lost time! How do we know this? For one, Coltrane starts most of his large phrases in this work with a sustained high note, with the onset beginning with a subtle pitch inflection. From there he tears into a blistering, contorted downward gesture. Time Compression: information is being flung at the listener with the hyper-pacing of today's video arcade games. The beboppers worked hard to develop these angular pitch contours, building them up to this type of frenzy by the end of a solo, the climax, so to speak. Yet Coltrane uses this as the starting point of a phrase, a whole 'bop' chorus in one third the time. If he is going to build an effective dramatic climax, he's not going to able to do it with just the speed of notes. This is why the music feels so urgent. The kind of pacing you are used to in most music operates at a higher hierarchical level in this context. The pacing of a normal phrase is now the pacing of the overall dramatic form. His solo doesn't work up to just one 'feel good' climax. No. Here we have three large climaxes in this second half of the piece, and it is not clear which one is bigger or more intense. They are all unique, this guy is not just repeating himself to fill in space. The story is multi-layered, and it leaves me on the edge of my seat for its duration.

'Morphing' is the current neologism for such intense effects as were used for the molton cybercop in "Terminator 2." Remember him melting into liquid to get under the cracks of doors and then forming into another person? In the next section (time 8:31-9:32) Coltrane lets 'flurries of lightning-fast angular lines played with a rough timbre' morph directly into raspy saxophone cries. In some instances it is extremely difficult to determine exactly when the sound changes. The rhythm, exact timbre color, and placement are unpredictable (at the end, at the beginning, or somewhere in the middle of a string of notes). The cries themselves seem to be portrayals of tortured, agonized suffering; this story is not attempting to put a sugar coating over the facts. This isn't "My Three Sons"; what is happening is real. The artist takes from his/her environment to express that environment in a more concentrated manner--where would someone hear these cries, discover that they could faithfully reproduce them on a musical instrument, and then decide to cultivate them as an integral part in the activities of creating, composing, and performing music? And why would hundreds of other people who heard Coltrane (et al.) doing this also decide to use it as part of their musical presentation? When a person re-produces an expressive 'cry-sound' on an instrument they physically become part of that sound. If you try to approximate what Coltrane is doing here with your own voice, you will see that all your energy goes into making those sounds: it consumes you. You cannot be intensely producing this sound without momentarily wiping out whatever is on your mind. As the sound transforms into this hyper-region, you transform with it. Look at the face of someone making this sound; look at Coltrane's face when he makes it (on video). Look at the bass player's face when he's digging in to his part, it's the same kind of thing. If the musicians are up there reading charts this is not going to happen. I want to see someone up there practically having a convulsion because they are so wrapped up in the sound they are making. Feedback, internal and external. When making this kind of cry-sound, it vibrates your own bones, flesh, and insides; and the external sound seems to surround your entire head and ear region. It is raw power, almost frightening when you think about it, similar to standing in an 80 mph wind gust. Is this pure hedonism and catharsis for those who want these affects? The situation is complex, and involves empathy, memory, emotions, --even ethics. If we become part of 'the cry' when we re-produce it, doesn't it trigger memory of events that do produce a cry? Coltrane submits to the union of 'sound with individual' and 'the individual becoming sound', while remaining intellectual, coaxing musical development out of his 'soul bearing' and even directly merging this plane with the one that executes gestural and motivic development. For example, check out how he concatenates a logical descending 'blues lick' onto the end of a 'scream-song' at 9:22. He actually started to get a nice, round, good timbre in that bluesy phrase; but just when you thought it was safe to listen for a tune, he instead delivers honks at 9:26 (which sound like something is being expelled from the body). This presentation is not about graceful melodies and beautiful timbre. Nonetheless, I think these honks are beautiful, amazing sounds--huge, warm, and resonant--a celebration of the tenor saxophone's sonic possibilities. The honk-gesture is repeated four times because this is someone who is in love with the act of producing, and interacting with, sound. He discovered that sound possibility on the instrument, and he liked it, so he did it again, and again...he liked it so much that he wanted to use it when he played a song. Perhaps the sound was so unique that it drew too much attention to itself when used with a regular melody, so he had to compose an environment where it complemented its surroundings.

John Coltrane isn't just playing whatever random notes happen to come out by jiggling his fingers on the keys due to the frenzied condition he seems to be in. He really seems to find and hear notes for their registral, tonal, and timbral impact; he is quite aware that some particular note produces tension and he goes straight for the kill. Witness 9:33-9:44, this is one of the freakiest dominant chords I have ever heard, with its insistant jabbing of the seventh of the chord played with a timbre that really brings out what a 'raw' thing a harmonic entity can be. This is a dominant sonority that has been to hell and back, and it is here to tell you about it!

Chainsaw Jazz. That is the effect at 10:03 as he forcibly coaxes the horn to cut through something stubborn. If you have ever used a chainsaw to cut through a large tree (or been on the scene where this is going on), you can hear the similarity of the sound, the repetition, and the physical exhaustion of such an event. Again, he is finding just a few notes and really digging in--vigorously squeezing every thing he can out of them. He creates extreme tension by repeatedly twisting the timbre in opposite directions.

At 10:30 we just went off a cliff and are floating in mid-air for about 20 seconds. One reason it feels this way is because we haven't experienced this duration of 'connected high gesture' before in the solo. It was suggested earlier, but not executed to this degree. He jabbed toward some of these notes, they were the target at the end of strong trajectory, but it really seems as if he spontaneously decided to further explore this particular region. After the fact, it appears he was heading there all along, as if it were the first big dramatic climax of the whole solo. The point of greatest 'crisis' or 'conflict' in dramatic form operates conversely here. Almost everything that led to this event had more visceral tension, while here, what should feel like a release is only a replacement, a different kind of tension--that of being 'suspended in a high, screaming, register'.

The next section (11:00-12:17) is perhaps the most schizophrenic performance in jazz history. We are lured in by a brief reference to the original melody, and for an instant we might believe that normalcy is possible. What follows is one of the fastest-paced 'split personality' conversations I have ever heard. I'm not even sure two different people could come up with this result. Coltrane brilliantly leaves the tiniest spaces between the registrally-timbrally disparate areas, giving the impression of a dialoge between two things, instead of the morphing which happened previously (due to connectedness). This is a kind of escape, a spectacle of human involvement with sound. "...rationality gone mad...forcing polyphony into monophonic single speech...escape within polyphony." (Ihde,183) Music gives us an opportunity to be expressive, and to play with that expression in a way that we usually don't experience. Coltrane says his wildest, most chaotic music is about peace and spirituality. As he stated, "I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good." (Simpkins, 229) ..."Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can't ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do...My goal in meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living maningful lives." (Hentoff). Many listeners think this distorted screaming and honking is about rage and violence; but consider some of our noisy, jubilant rituals. We honk horns and listen to firecrackers on New Years Eve; we yell, scream, shout, and clap at football games. The performer him/herself celebrates the act of making sound, letting feedback from a sound they love (that they just produced) help fuel their performance--to direct the course of the music. Take for example what Coltrane does at 12:06-12:17. He ends up on a high estatic note-timbre, and then he crazily waves a flag. I have rarely heard a better analogue in music for the concept of freedom. Occasionaly in his late period live performances (1966), Coltrane is reported to have put his horn down at the most intense moments and resorting to screaming with his voice or beating on his chest. Musicians in Tibet were cited, who when they could release no more energy through their instruments, put them down and yodeled, "cause a lot of times, I can't get it all out. So I just have to beat it out of me." (Coltrane, quoted in Simpkins, 209)

Other, more objectively measurable events can be pointed out as well, especially drumming technique. Throughout much of this entire passage Elvin Jones seems to be simultaneously keeping the beat going while playing soloistically on tom-toms. This is another form of time compression. In more typical jazz contexts, the drummer does not solo while the horn soloist is playing; they get their chance toward the end of the piece or in the context of 'trading' four bar phrases. When two timbrally disparate instruments are soloing at the same time (sax and drums), clarity is retained while intensity is increased. The saxophone and piano are not soloing at the same time, not that they couldn't, but there certainly wouldn't be as much freedom for the individual soloists. Coltrane and Jones can solo together at high intensity levels without masking or distorting each other. There is also an extended concept of a Big, fat, warm beat; which is established every 8 bars during McCoy Tyner's piano solo (mid section of the piece 4:00-7:28). At 11:00-12:19 this beat is really a giant, timbrally orchestrated bass drum, formed by a low piano chord, bass drum, and bass; and it is played with a much louder dynamic than the small beats. This really builds listener anticipation for this activity to happen, since it is presented regularly enough for you to get used to its presence. Psychological tension is magnified occasionally when this beat is left out, its duration becoming 16 bars instead of 8, and the listener is left waiting. At other times Jones delays the big beat ever so slightly; he knows where you want that beat to fall, but he stretches it, pulls you just a little further.

...to be continued...


Hentoff, Nat. liner notes for John Coltrane album Meditations. Universal City, CA: MCA Impulse Records Inc.,1966.

Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice. Athens Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1976

Poyatos, Fernando. Paralanguage. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1993.

Simpkins, Cuthbert. Coltrane: A Biography. New York, N.Y.: Herndon House Publishers, 1975.


Coltrane, John. Transition. GRD-124. New York, N.Y.: MCA Records Inc. & GRP Records Inc., 1993.

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